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Sep 23, 2013

Swansea defeat highlights importance of Dikgacoi

I know it's a massive cliche to start a football column with a massive cliche but it's definitely true that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. I once had a little 1992 Nissan Micra that was brilliant on petrol and never broke down. I traded it in for a Volkswagen Golf because I thought I had outgrown the little Japanese car but the Golf drained so much petrol and then blew its head gasket while I was sat in traffic, leaving me longing for the Micra again. I once also threw out loads of old Crystal Palace shirts, instructing my mum to give them to a charity shop, and then instantly regretted the decision to part with the 1997 Adidas home strip, which I now realise is one of the greatest Palace shirts ever made.

In the same way I think most Crystal Palace fans suddenly appreciated how important South African midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi is to the team after Sunday's dismal display against Swansea. Thanks to a controversial red card picked up at Old Trafford last weekend, 'KG' (nicknamed such on account of no-one really being able to pronounce his name properly) was serving a one-game ban, meaning deadline day signings Barry Bannan and Adlene Guedioura both got their first starts for the Eagles -- alongside captain, and arguably Palace's best player, Mile Jedinak. But as a result the midfield three looked exactly like a trio who had barely met, let alone played together, and were a bit of a mess. What they missed was KG.

- Swans on song after Euro success

Now, KG is an odd case because he goes through spells where he is terrible and courts all sorts of criticism, especially around pre-season and the African Nations Cup when he returns to England carrying a few extra kgs and looks pretty awful. But he somehow manages to shed the pounds and look like a proper footballer after a few weeks and return to form. Whatever he is being fed back home he needs to eat less of!

But what KG does add to the team is a barrier (sometimes a bigger barrier than others) that stops teams flooding forward through the centre of the park. He may not have a brilliant eye for a pass, but KG is very good at tracking his man and breaking up play. That was badly missing on Sunday as Swansea's midfield swanned forward with ease and opened the scoring after just 90 seconds. Had KG been present, perhaps Michu wouldn't have found that pocket of space (actually it was more like a whole trouser leg of space) between the Palace midfield and defence to make it 1-0.

The same happened in the opening minutes of the second half when Michu -- playing a bit further forward -- spun Danny Gabbidon and sent Alvaro Vazquez free. The forward's shot was saved by Julian Speroni, but Nathan Dyer, following up from midfield, slotted the rebound home. Palace players were chasing not just shadows but the shadows' shadows and leaving huge holes free between midfield and defence. I can't help think that had KG been there things would have been tighter. At times Jedinak was trying to do everything himself and he's good, but he ain’t that good.

The Eagles were swept aside by a Swans team who only two years ago were in the same division as the red and blue army (although admittedly smashed Palace 3-0 home and away back in 2010/11) which shows how far the Welsh side have come in such a short space of time. Indeed they arrived at Selhurst fresh from a trip to Spain where whey beat former Champions League finalists Valencia in their own back yard (or orange grove or whatever they might have) in the Europa League. Palace manager Ian Holloway wants his side to be the next Swansea City, he loves the way they play, with fast, neat passing, claiming they had "made football beautiful again", but he has some work to do before his Eagles team are anywhere as good as Michael Laudrup's boys. Palace were sluggish, nervous and confused from the first minute with the new boys looking overawed by their first game at Selhurst.

After a frantic opening period where Swansea could have scored three or four, Palace settled a bit and the likes of Bannan and Cameron Jerome started to impress, but they were already fighting an uphill battle by then. When the second goal went in at the start of the second half it was game over and despite the introduction of Jose Campana and Dwight Gayle, who both looked bright, the game was won by Swansea, who at times toyed with the Eagles when in possession.

But even with the 'tiki-taka' plaudits Swansea's formation is built on a strong midfield barrier with the likes of Canas, Jonjo Shelvey and Jonathan de Guzman stopping play as much as they start it. It's another cliche, but unless you have the ball you can't do anything with it.

KG returns to the Palace side on Saturday for the trip to Southampton -- another team who pride themselves on being hard to break down with a strong midfield -- and his inclusion can't come soon enough. Last season he struck up a brilliant partnership with Jedinak in centre of the park and the Australian midfielder does look more settled when his South African pal is playing alongside him.

It may be a thankless task and an unsung role and he rarely gets the sort of credit that his midfield partner in crime Jedinak gets for essentially doing the same job, but Palace really do notice what they have in KG when he's gone.