Crystal Palace enjoying title-spoiling role in Premier League
Crystal Palace apparently thrive in the role of king-makers. Wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have had a significant influence on the outcome of this season's top four so far, and with fixtures against Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United to come, there's still plenty of opportunity for Sam Allardyce's side to play a further part.
This isn't the first time that Palace have played their part in shaping the run-in. Back when the club first returned to the Premier League in the 2013-14 season, the Eagles were again fighting relegation and playing a determining role in the title race.
A win over Chelsea, thanks to a John Terry own goal, ensured that the West Londoners would no longer have a hope of challenging. A memorable draw with Liverpool at Selhurst Park, which saw the Eagles fight back from a 3-0 deficit, ensured that Liverpool's chances of winning the title were greatly diminished.
This season's run-in was one which many Palace fans feared would have a defining role in the club's season. Having performed so poorly for so many months, and with the "new manager bounce" not materialising immediately, the fear was that Allardyce's team would continue to suffer through poor form and low confidence to an early, frustration-filled capitulation. Relegation looked, at the time, to be a formality -- and defeats to all of the top six sides were a certainty.
Allardyce promised at the time of his appointment that the impact of his work would only be seen in April. Palace needed a change in fitness, tactics and mentality -- work which takes months rather than weeks. Few would have expected that he meant that the club would collect nine points from the trio of top-six-challenging fixtures. If there was an indicator of a change of mentality, the win over West Brom was it -- at the time, Allardyce's side were the first team outside the top 10 to win at the Hawthorns. It was as unexpected as the results that soon followed, and gave the players the confidence to believe in the manager's approach.
Luck has played some part. The win over Chelsea was as smash-and-grab as you could expect a win at Stamford Bridge to be. Palace defended with a solidity that looked entirely out of sorts with the side that, just a few months before, had conceded five goals to Swansea City. But Palace also made their own luck -- hard work and a dedication to securing at least a point has been core to Palace's resurgence. Wins are crucial but while they are the ultimate goal, respecting the point has provided foundations from which Palace could build.
Much will be said about how Arsenal's performance was clouded by the will-he-won't-he saga that has followed the club around since Arsene Wenger's position become subject to speculation, but all of that fails to appreciate Palace's performance.
Arsenal looked timid because of Palace's tactics: pressing the midfield into submission, limiting Alexis Sanchez and his teammates to few chances, and taking the opportunities that fell their way with clinical precision. The Arsenal players might have been distracted, or have had a ready-made excuse for their poor performance, but Palace had to be at the top of their game to get a win against their North London opponents.
The same can be said about Liverpool. Once the lead was taken, Jurgen Klopp's side failed to wrestle themselves free of Palace's python-like grip on the three points. Palace, playing with what ultimately resulted in two banks of four, pressured Liverpool to play down the wings -- a tactic that, without a player like Christian Benteke in their ranks, would always prove to be a fruitless exercise. It wasn't always pretty but it was richly deserved.
All of these performances have been successful not just because of the tactics employed but because of the players' willingness to conform to them. It took time, but Palace now look like a side richly-accustomed to playing Allardyce's way.
Wednesday's game against Tottenham might see a change in style. Allardyce has admitted that, due to fixture congestion, he's likely to make a few changes to the line-up. However it's unlikely that too many of those will come in defence, which has played such a significant role to Palace's resurgence. Patrick van Aanholt may take the place of Jeffrey Schlupp at left-back, while Mamadou Sakho is likely to return for injured James Tomkins.
James McArthur will be in line to replace Yohan Cabaye in midfield. The Frenchman has played the majority of Palace's fixtures during this resurgent spell, and a rest prior to the weekend's Burnley game would suit him.
In attack, there's a possibility that Loic Remy might make a return to the side following a prolonged spell on the sidelines. The striker has barely featured for Palace since he was signed on loan from Chelsea but it would be typical for the player to score against their title rivals. And it would be another notch in Palace's Premier League title-spoiling role.
Robert Sutherland is ESPN FC's Crystal Palace blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @RoDuSu.