Can the FA Cup make or break Crystal Palace season?
Background photo: Rocky Biggs, CC BY-SA 4.0
The FA Cup quarterfinals precede the international break. Crystal Palace travel to Vicarage Road to face Watford. The Eagles can use the good cheer a berth in the semifinals will bring. Their Premier League season is a mixed bag with too few goodies. Wins over Liverpool and Leicester City proved Palace can hang with the big boys. They just can't seem to do it against clubs their own size.
A team boasting Wilfred Zaha, Max Meyer and Andros Townsend is expected to do more than sit 14th on the log. Five points from the drop, one slip can place them in dire straits. Surviving week to week is no way to go through life or a Premier League season. The Selhurst Park mob need to bank some wins. Manager Roy Hodgson has no better place to start than in the 'burbs against the Hornets.
The Palace scuttlebutt centres on whether to field a full-strength side or rest players for the league run-in. Did I mention, the game lands on the edge of a two-week furlough? Hodgson must be all-in.
On the other hand, Watford shouldn't hold back either. Javi Gracia is more comfortable in the table's top half and basking in the job security provided by the first contract extension the Pozzo family ever offered a manager since purchasing the club. Bringing home some unanticipated silverware is the perfect way to express his gratitude.
That said, Palace enjoy recent dominance over Watford in this competition. The 2016 semifinal triumph remains forefront in supporters' minds but the last dozen meetings overall between the two sides were tight affairs. The Eagles won five and lost four. No margin was greater than a single goal. The road to Wembley seems clear but the destination can only be reached if the manager gets his tactics and squad selection right.
Pape Souare and Wayne Hennessey return for Hodgson, ready to play a part. On the other hand, Mamadou Sakho's knee injury suffered in the 4-1 romp over the Foxes keeps him out.
With games against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City yet to be played, the run-in looks grim. Survival will be dearly bought. Games against Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth offer glimmers of hope but progression in the FA Cup can blaze a bright trail. Nothing spurs players and fans on more than knowing they are a win or two away from a spring date at Wembley. Who says Palace can’t win their first trophy in 36-years come May?
Keep in mind Hodgson's age as well. At 71, the gaffer will only continue as long as he has the energy to push on. FA Cup wins have a way of putting a spring in your step and a gleam in the eye. Today's result may go a distance towards deciding both Crystal Palace's season and Roy Hodgson's future. The former England boss has nothing to prove to anyone at this stage of his long, illustrious career. No one, that is, other than himself.