Until recently, most televised Crystal Palace home matches have featured shots of manager Roy Hodgson staring forlornly at the field as his team struggled to score goals, only hitting the Selhurst Park nets six times before Saturday. Turning round to look at his substitutes’ bench in search of answers would have been futile, as central strikers in red and blue were such an endangered species that Palace routinely took the field without one.
But all at once they have multiplied. On Saturday Christian Benteke made his first since September 1 following knee surgery, Michy Batshuayi has arrived on loan from Chelsea and made an impact as a late substitute, and even Connor Wickham was recently spotted scoring a goal against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup, although he was unfit yet again here. Throw in Bakary Sako, back from West Bromwich Albion on a short-term contract, and Jordan Ayew finally finding some form, and Hodgson finds himself with unprecedented forward riches at his fingertips.
“We played for a long period of last year without a recognised centre forward,” Hodgson said. “All of sudden I’m looking at a bench behind me where I can think: ‘Hold on, this might be the guy, this might be the answer’ which for long periods last year we didn’t really have.”
He insisted that Benteke need not fear that he has battled back to fitness only to lose his place to Batshuayi, and that the pair could play together. “We see all scenarios,” he said. “That is one of the things we wanted, to be able to use different formations and in particular with Batshuayi and Ayew we have different alternatives. There is a degree of similarity between Christian and Connor but Michy and Jordan are completely different players.”
A degree of flexibility might prove especially useful in the next few weeks. Wilfried Zaha could have the suspension that kept him out of Saturday’s game extended after the FA charged him with improper conduct for continuing sarcastically to applaud the referee following his dismissal at Southampton last Wednesday. But Palace have now won twice without him this season, a feat hitherto considered impossible.