Crystal Palace 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1: Perhaps Crystal Palace were a little too grateful to be back in the Premier League, a little too respectful towards a team expected to challenge for a Champions League despite the apparently impending loss of the world’s first 100-million euro player.
At any rate Ian Holloway’s side, promoted by way of the play-offs and tipped for as quick a return to the Football League as Holloway’s highly entertaining Blackpool made a couple of years ago, concentrated on not being torn apart for nearly an hour, until Tottenham took the lead through a penalty by Roberto Soldado.
Then it was different. Holloway made a trio of substitutions and threw his men forward on a broad front. At last they made Hugo Lloris work.
But the Spurs goalkeeper stood firm and a double save from Kagisho Dikgacoi ensured a victory for quality.
Although Andre Villas-Boas’s men will have to do better than this on a regular basis if they are to inhabit the top four, the early season has the air of a phoney war. And no wonder, given that clubs of standing might lose star men before the window closes on September 2.
Villas-Boas’s reticence on the subject of whether Gareth Bale might go to Spain seemed to confirm that it is now a question of price, or how much Real Madrid are willing to pay up front.
That there can be life without Bale was obvious yesterday, especially when Soldado was on the move. A one-in-two striker with not only his every club but Spain, to whose squad he has returned after an absence of five years, he lived up to his reputation, impressing with almost every touch. Paulinho, meanwhile, emphasised his appetite for work in midfield. As for Nacer Chadli, it will be some time before he is ready to fill Bale’s boots, if that proves his destiny.
What they should all bear in mind is that English football seldom exudes such an atmosphere as this, with balmy weather and bonhomie radiating from the stadium’s slopes. It lasted beyond the final whistle, too, Palace being accorded a five-minute standing ovation as they made their weary way from centre circle to the tunnel at the Holmesdale Road end.
Losing sides don’t often get that and, if the crowd can maintain such form, they might be worth a few points before the campaign is out. Not that the Palace players didn’t deserve it. Mile Jedinak in particular; he played a captain’s part in central midfield and was last to reach the tiled sanctum on this beguiling day.
Although a drenching in late-summer sunshine can make even a brick outhouse beautiful, the South London rays struggled to work their magic on dear old Selhurst Park. It is a ground only a fan could love.
Yet the Palace faithful were only too happy to fill the place and the comedian Kevin Day spoke for all as he concluded his column in the
programme: ‘’Today we play one of England’s biggest clubs in a Premier league London derby and TV viewers the world over get to marvel at the Red and Blue Army. I am filled with love and pride.’’
As an occasion it was as delightful as that, a pleasure to share. As a match, it took too long to get going and there was especially little for the home support to cheer in the first half: a header from Aaron Wilbraham, rising to Owen Garvan’s free-kick, that went straight to Lloris at low speed was, believe it or not, their highlight.
Spurs were predictably slicker, even with Soldado, Paulinho, Chadli and eventually Etienne Capoue making Premier League debuts. Soldado, though saturation-policed by Palace defenders, managed to impress straight away with a selection of techniques.
He might have thought Dani Alves had joined him in switching from La Liga to the Premier, so quick and adventurous was Kyle Walker in advancing from right-back to link with Aaron Lennon, pinning back the left flank of the home team.
Lennon was less successful in serving Soldado and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who operated just behind the main striker, while Chadli remained peripheral on the left. But Sigurdsson did make himself a chance, turning and contriving a dipper that Julian Speroni did well to turn over the crossbar, before the resumption brought Spurs their goal.
It was no surprise that Mark Clattenburg awarded a penalty, for Dean Moxey had his arms spread wide as Lennon tried a short cross. When the ball was deflected, the referee pointed to the spot, from which Soldado made a masterly job, finding the side netting as Speroni dived the wrong way.
It should have been 2-0 shortly afterwards, for Walker and Soldado expertly carved the Palace defence apart to set up Sigurdsson, who had Speroni at his mercy but missed the target from 10 yards.
Suddenly it was a livelier, more open match with Palace, stimulated by the triple substitution – Ian Johnny Williams, Marouane Chamakh and Kevin Phillips came on – a genuine threat for the first time. Dwight Gayle, chasing Chamakh’s pass, was thwarted by Lloris, who excelled himself in denying Digakcoi at the end.
Holloway seemed unsure afterwards whether he had been too cautious – ‘’if we’d started like we finished, we might have got absolutely hammered’’ – or his players had been daunted by the opposition. He did indicate that Palace would become more attack-minded at this should give them a better chance of at least competing at this level.