Roy Hodgson has some decisions to make in attack as Crystal Palace seek to further themselves from the relegation scrap Saturday when they host West Ham United at Selhurst Park.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Palace (7-5-13) are just four points clear of the drop but did themselves a favour by winning a match they needed to win last weekend – topping relegation-threatened Fulham 2-0 at home. Luka Milivojevic converted a first-half penalty and new signing Michy Batshuayi contributed to the build up that resulted in Jeffrey Schlupp’s goal three minutes from time, as he was fastest to a spilt rebound on Batshuayi’s effort stopped by Fulham keeper Sergio Rico.
“Without getting carried away, we’ve got a lot of top players and we found ourselves in a position in the league where we don’t feel we should be,” Schlupp told Palace’s official website. “But you know how the Premier League is, you never know what’s going to happen. We’ve just got to stick to our task: win some more games and score some more goals. We can then start looking up to the other half of the table.”
After playing the match without first-choice forward Wilfried Zaha as he sat out his red card suspension for his two bookings against Southampton, the Eagles may again be without the Ivory Coast international. The Independent Regulatory Commission held a hearing on the incident in which Zaha was sent off after sarcastically applauding referee Andre Marriner for his first yellow card and added another match to his ban for improper conduct.
Zaha, who has four goals in all competitions but is a constant threat with his pace on the wing or up front, has the right to appeal the ruling and potentially play in this contest.
Batshuayi’s arrival, though, means Hodgson can mix and match from five potential strikers with Christian Benteke, Connor Wickham, Jordan Ayew and Andros Townsend. Benteke, who missed a prolonged spell with a knee injury, is eager to try and form a partnership with Batshuayi up front, which would given Hodgson the flexibility to let Zaha and Townsend torment opponents on the flank with their pace.
“I spoke with Batshuayi the night before he signed,” Benteke told the Evening Standard. “I said it (his arrival) is welcome because the situation (at Palace) wasn’t the best. Now he is here we have to welcome another player.
“I wouldn’t say that (I feel threatened) because we have probably been lacking in goals. We are four up front now, so it gives the gaffer a lot of options. But the thing is we all have a good relationship.”
West Ham United (9-5-11) have no such worries on the availability of their top forward as Marko Arnautovic is expected to be in the starting XI for this match. The Austria international sat out Monday’s 1-1 draw at home against Liverpool due to a foot injury suffered in the previous match against Wolverhampton.
Despite being a lightning rod for attention with his transfer demand and subsequent change of mind on a potential move to China, there is no denying Arnautovic’s importance to the Irons, and when he is in the mood, he is one of the Premier League’s best forwards.
“Marko is available for the weekend. He worked the complete week without problems,” manager Manuel Pellegrini told the club’s official site about Arnautovic, who trails only Felipe Anderson among West Ham players with eight goals in all competitions.
“Of course, it is good news for us. He is a player who makes a difference and is important for our team,” Pellegrini said. “He needs to recover his best shape after a long time without playing and with his last injury, so I hope he will be a very important player for us over the last part of the season.”
Pellegrini also expressed optimism midfielder Manuel Lanzini could be on the 18-man roster for this match after being sidelined a lengthy spell with a knee injury. Fellow midfielder Samir Nasri, though, is likely to be held out again due to a calf injury.
The Irons claimed eight points from their home matches against Big Six rivals (2-2-2) and are now trying to angle for a top-half finish, as a win in this contest could lift them as high as ninth depending on results. Another such effort like the one West Ham gave against Liverpool should portend good things, according to Robert Snodgrass.
“Listen, that’s the standard we need to set,” Snodgrass confirmed. “I think when you play against the top teams, you need to be at it, you need to be at your very best and you need to have a team that’s willing to give everything. I can’t stress it enough, this was the West Ham way and what this club should be built on – hard work and determination, then the rest should come. To be at this level, you need to have talent, but you also need to have togetherness and desire to go and try and grind results out.”
West Ham are seeking their second double over Palace in three seasons after recording a 3-2 win in the reverse fixture in December. Snodgrass, Chicharito and Anderson all scored in a 17-minute spell after intermission while Palace got goals from James McArthur and Schlupp on either side of halftime.
The Irons are unbeaten in their last seven (4-3-0) versus Palace since a 3-1 loss at Upton Park in 2015. West Ham are 3-1-0 in their last four at Selhurst Park after a 2-2 draw last season in which Zaha scored a 97th-minute equaliser.
Per Bet365, Crystal Palace are even money to take all three points, with West Ham 14/5 underdogs to pull off the double. The odds of a draw are slightly better than the Irons winning at 23/10.
Oddsmakers are unsure if there will be another five-goal outburst like the reverse fixture, offering 10/11 odds on both sides of the 2.5-goal threshold. They also think both teams will score goals for the second time in this fixture, offering 3/4 odds for both teams scoring compared to even money for at least one clean sheet.
Though Zaha’s status is uncertain, he is one of four Palace players leading the line for first goal-scorers at 5/1 along with Benteke, Batshuayi, and Bakary Sako. Fellow Palace forwards Ayew (6/1) and Wickham (13/2) are next in line, with Arnautovic the top pick for the Hammers at 13/2 along with teammates Andy Carroll and Chicharito at 7/1. Palace penalty taker Milivojevic is a 9/1 pick to make it 1-0 for the hosts.
The aforementioned quartet of Palace attackers who are top picks for first-goal honours are also top options for any-time goal-scorers with 8/5 odds. Ayew is a 2/1 option, with Wickham and Arnautovic a step back at 21/10. Townsend, Carroll and Chicharito offer 3/1 returns on a goal.
Though the good news is Crystal Palace have learned how to win games without Zaha, the bad news is they may have to do it again in this contest pending if or when he files his appeal. That said, Batshuayi’s addition to a crowded yet not overpowering group of forwards does give Hodgson plenty of options going forward.
If the Eagles can dominate possession like they did last weekend against Fulham, they could be a dangerous side with the potential to nick points against Big Six clubs while trending towards a mid-table finish as opposed to the relegation scrap.
There is a lot to like about Palace — they’re a blue-collar team behind the ball who simply need to unlock their offence, though that is easier said than done.
West Ham are already mid-table and angling for a top-half finish. The “Days of Arnautovic” soap opera appears to be at an end as he is expected to be in the starting XI for this game. The issue for the Irons in this game is playmaking without Samir Nasri, who is out again with a calf injury. Snodgrass and Mark Noble are serviceable replacements but lack that something extra, which means Arnautovic is going to have to be very industrious when ever and how ever he gets the ball.
Though Palace did play their best home match of the season against Fulham, it needs to be remembered it came against… Fulham. This match is fairly well-balanced, and a draw would not be a surprising outcome.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Crystal Palace 1, West Ham United 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 26 PREVIEWS:
Fulham (4-5-16) vs. Manchester United (14-6-5)
Liverpool (19-5-1) vs. Bournemouth (10-3-12)
Watford (9-7-9) vs. Everton (9-6-10)
Manchester City (20-2-4) vs. Chelsea (15-5-5)
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