On a soft, spring-like south London afternoon Crystal Palace produced a performance of thrust, energy and refined attacking interplay to emerge on into an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium.
It helped that they were pitched against an Everton team that seemed to have no real idea how they wanted to play, and none of the rage and resilience required to respond once they fell behind. Not to mention no further answer as Palace scored twice in each half. By the end the 4-0 scoreline looked a little kind to the visitors.
This was the first time Patrick Vieira had started his entire hand of attacking players – Patrick’s Pups (age range: 21 to 29) – in the same game. It has been a theme of the last few months around this place: a team that survived in the top tier by smothering and keeping the center solid have the weapons to play an entirely different game now.
The third goal on 78 minutes seemed to sum up that fluency, finished off by Wilfried Zaha after Michael Olise’s shot had hit a post, both men alone in the Selhurst sunshine as the white shirts stood and watched, and greeted by another barreling cheer from a basking home crowd.
The contrast will have been stark for Everton supporters, on a day when their team began with a surge of intent but congealed as soon as the day turned against them. Here was an opposition with a clear set of attacking patterns, with players who were obviously delighted to be out there discovering the deeper gears in this new-build midfield and attack. So this is what team building looks like.
Selhurst Park had been a breezy, chilly place at kick-off, the air thick with flare smoke, the supersized away end already on his feet. Vieira had made two changes from the 0-0 draw with Manchester City, Jack Butland replacing Vicente Guaita in goal and Eberechi Eze given another opportunity to find his feet from him after a season ravaged by injury.
Even on paper that front five of Gallagher-Eze-Olise-Mateta-Zaha looked like a mouthwatering blend of energy and movement, a Palace team now fully evolved beyond the deep double block of the Hodgson era.
Frank Lampard had reinstalled Jordan Pickford after illness and brought in André Gomes, Jonjoe Kenny and Andros Townsend. Everton dominated the game early on. With a minute gone Micheal Keane found himself alone in front of goal but snatched his shot wide. Richarlison, who chose to play here rather than return home after the death of his grandmother, ballooned the ball over the bar from a decent position. For a while Anthony Gordon did Anthony Gordon things, sniping into space and passing accurately, a footballer with a precious kind of optimism about his game.
With 17 minutes gone Townsend left the field with a wrenched knee. At which point, with Palace still to mount a serious attack, the game turned completely. First Eze mustered up a shot on the turn after some neat interplay with Olise. Then on 25 minutes Olise produced a lovely, shark-like burst down the right to win a corner. His first kick from him, viciously whipped in, was palmed over by Pickford. The second on the same angle but better placed was flicked into the net by the head of Marc Guéhi. This was a finish of real skill, not just reading the line of the ball but directing it with perfect timing though a crowd of players.
It was a lovely goal for other reasons, made and scored by two brilliant young footballers who, given the time, really do have the talent to take this team wherever they want to go.
For a while Everton were limited to scrappy, off the cuff breakaway attacks, Gomes and Abdoulaye Doucouré unable to find any kind of rhythm in midfield as Palace pressed with energy and the game became a little messy.
And on 41 minutes it was 2-0. Eze carried the ball forward on the left then nudged the perfect pass on to Zaha. His low cross of him found Jean-Philippe Mateta. The finish was low and hard past Pickford, who flopped to the ground but couldn’t get a hand on the ball.
By now Everton looked baffled, frozen, bemused by the apparently unforeseen possibility of going a goal behind, of finding opponents with ideas and energy of their own. Lampard sat on Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the second half, Demarai Gray having already replaced Townsend in a new-look front three.
But part of the beauty of Palace’s high-craft front six is the ability of those players to manoeuvre the ball, to retain possession by being smarter and quicker in their footwork and their passing. Olise continued to glide infield from the right, eventually drawing a booking for desperate-looking Mason Holgate, who really couldn’t cope with his movement from him. Connor Gallagher pressed like a dervish. Zaha, who must be having the time of his life from him right now, looking back at those years when he was The Only Guy, was a source of high-grade menace down the left.
With three minutes to play Will Hughes added a fourth as Palace besieged the Everton goal with an easy, almost sadistic air of pleasure, smashing the ball past Pickford after Gallagher’s shot had been saved. Palace have a great deal to look forward to from here. For Everton this was the bleakest of away days, and an ominous looking signpost for the remainder of the Premier League season.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism