Don't laugh, but Crystal Palace could have biggest impact on top four race
The race for the top four places in the Premier League is heating up. Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have effectively sealed their places in next year's Champions League but Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal are vying for the two remaining spots. There is one team that has had more effect than any other in the battle for the top four, though, a club that no one expected to exert influence at the business end of the table: Crystal Palace.
With 11 games left in the Premier League season, Sam Allardyce's side appeared to be in free fall. They were fourth from bottom and one place above the relegation zone. The remaining fixtures gave validity to their fear of the drop. Palace had to play Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, City and United.
Few gave Allardyce's team any hope of picking up points from that elite group of teams. The reality was different.
Palace won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, starting a nervous few weeks for Antonio Conte. Next, the Eagles damaged Arsenal's top-four hopes with a 3-0 victory at Selhurst Park. On Sunday they threw Arsene Wenger a lifeline with a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield. On Wednesday, Palace host Spurs. Next month they go to the Etihad and Old Trafford to play City and United.
In seven frantic weeks, Allardyce's team will have played the probable top six finishers in the Premier League. Halfway through that run, they have a 100 percent record. They are the team no top-four contender wants to face.
The other bonus for Palace is their launch up the table. Relegation is no longer a real threat. They're now in 12th place and have ambitions to crash the top 10. If Tottenham show any sign of an FA Cup hangover after their 4-2 defeat by Chelsea, the South London side will take advantage.
So just how has Allardyce effected this transformation? The 62-year-old was appointed at Selhurst Park in December but it took him two months to arrest the decline. At the February international break they were second from bottom of the table and appeared doomed. Things came together slowly. Allardyce has a deserved reputation for organising defences and tightening up leaky back fours.
In the January window, the club brought in defensive help, although many were skeptical about the recruitment policy. Allardyce had worked with Patrick van Aanholt at Sunderland but there were some doubts about the Dutch international left-back's solidity. Jeffrey Schlupp was brought in from Leicester City with a more versatile left-sided presence but spending more than £20 million on the duo appeared excessive.
Mamadou Sakho, whose discipline had been questioned by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, was brought in on loan. The Frenchman was prone to errors and lapses of concentration at Anfield but Sakho has thrived under Allardyce, responding to the management techniques of his new boss.
Palace have lost only once with the centre-back in the team. His partnership with James Tomkins has looked particularly promising and although the Englishman picked up another injury at Anfield, Palace have enough defensive quality to suit Allardyce's style. They have stopped leaking silly goals.
The most important buy in January, however, was Luka Milivojevic. The Serbian midfielder cost nearly £11 million from Olympiakos and gives the Eagles a more solid look in the middle of the park. The 26-year-old patrols the area in front of the centre-backs but also has a passing range that can start attacks. He provides a solid platform for Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha to get forward and feed Christian Benteke.
Benteke's turnaround in the past few weeks has been impressive. If the right offer had come in for the Belgium international in January, the manager would have taken the cash. It would have been a mistake. The striker has scored five times in the past five games. Palace's delivery into the penalty area has improved and Benteke, a player who can drift in and out of games, has become energised.
The last thing Tottenham need before a north London derby at the weekend is a trip to Selhurst Park. Palace will examine their resolve and give Mauricio Pochettino's team a real test. Meanwhile, City and United, who are likely to be locked in a battle for the top four until the last day of the season, will wish the fixture computer had given them Palace before Christmas, when the south London club were in disarray. Now they are showing top-10 form.
Allardyce always believed he could manage a top-four club. It will probably never happen, but the next best thing for him would be to damage the Champions League hopes of one of England's big six. The chase for the top four will have a few twists and turns in the last month of the season and Palace and Allardyce will provide quite a few of them.
Guardiola's not a failure -- not yet, anyway
Is Pep Guardiola a failure? Manchester City have not won a trophy, the first time the manager has ended a season without silverware, and their Champions League qualification is still in question.
Expectations were high when the 46-year-old came to England, but City are about where they deserve to be. The squad needs an overhaul and they will be better next season. What is a concern, however, is Guardiola's commitment to doing things his way when it quickly became clear that he did not have the players capable of carrying out his wishes. Had the City manager been more pragmatic, his team might have come much closer to success.
The pace and style of the Premier League means that it is hard for a manager to impose his personality on the top flight. It is better to recognise the division's quirks and adapt your style to suit it. Jose Mourinho did this. The clash of management technique in a crucial Manchester derby this week will be fascinating.
Guardiola was always going to get a free pass in his first campaign, but next season will be the real test. If the City manager does not change his ways he may end up in the same position in a year's time. That would be considered failure.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.