All the focus ahead of the FA Cup semi-finals is on the rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool, who go head-to-head on Saturday in the second part of what could be a remarkable treble. The two sides may meet in the Champions League final, making their battle the defining moment of all of the big three competitions.
But that focus has detracted from a potentially more interesting story. Crystal Palace have been superb under Patrick Vieira, who was widely tipped to take the club into the Championship this season following such a dramatic upheaval in tactics and personnel over the summer. Just surviving would have been a good achievement, but to flourish – and with a progressive style of football – is phenomenal.
It could get even better. Palace’s chance of reaching, and then winning, the FA Cup final are higher than the 14/1 odds would indicate.
Palace can beat stuttering Chelsea
Vieira has pushed up Palace’s defensive line by a good 20-30 yards this season, playing in a more adventurous system defined by hard pressing in central midfield and the driving energy of key player Conor Gallagher. The basic idea is finding a midpoint between the expansive attacking football many anticipated Vieira would implement and the defensive shell of his predecessor Roy Hodgson.
Only Leeds United have attempted more pressures in the middle third of the pitch than Crystal Palace (2213), reflecting how they hold a neatly compressed midblock and then snap into challenges in the centre of the park. It is a system that gives them even greater defensive assurance than under Hodgson, while maintaining the use of pace in the transition; after the ball is won, they waste no time getting forward.
It is exactly the right balance for facing ‘Big Six’ sides, hence why Palace might fancy their chances in the FA Cup. In their most recent league meeting with Chelsea at Selhurst Park in February, Palace were unlucky to lose 1-0 through a late Kai Havertz goal – having held their own throughout.
Chelsea were restricted to just nine shots on goal, with Thomas Tuchel left frustrated by his side’s inability play quickly in behind their hosts. This should happen again on Sunday considering Palace are so stubborn in how they pack central midfield, an area Chelsea will again find too crowded for chance creation.
And although Gallagher is again unavailable for selection, Palace have a new weapon in central midfield: Jeffrey Schlupp. The 29-year-old is having a reneissance in central midfield, weaving away from opponents to help Palace counter-attack with greater urgency, and he can hope to find joy against an increasingly timid Chelsea midfield.
The 6-0 win over Southampton was defined by the losers’ two-man midfield and aggression too high up the pitch, therefore Palace fans can be hopeful of facing the Chelsea that lost 4-1 to Brentford. Christian Eriksen dominated that game as Tuchel’s midfielders struggled to get a grip, which is good news for a Schlupp-led Palace.
There is every reason to assume that Crystal Palace will be more motivated and fresher at Wembley, clogging up the midfield and finding gaps in the Chelsea defence.
City & Liverpool on a knife edge
This should be just as entertaining as the league meeting last weekend, and while two matches so close together probably means Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola will both look to spring a surprise, on the whole the pattern of the match should be similar.
Last Sunday, Liverpool and Man City both held very high defensive lines in order to squeeze the space through midfield, but both also refused to press particularly hard through fear of allowing the contest to descend into a wild end-to-end battle. But put a high line and conservative pressing together, and you get a tense match on a knife edge: one long ball away from carnage.
Which is exactly what happened before – and will happen again. Guardiola used what is normally a Klopp strategy of playing lots of direct passes in behind the high line, focusing in particular on hitting Kyle Walker, who surprised everyone by running from deep and overlapping, rather than staying deep to form a back three.
Liverpool will be awake to that threat this time, although they will probably fight fire with fire – looking to push Walker back rather than do anything more obviously defensive. Klopp could start Luis Diaz and have Sadio Mane central, leading to the two players doubling up on the left to neutralise Walker, although more likely he will bring Roberto Firmino back into the team.
Firmino’s capacity to link the play by dropping deep was sorely missed at the Etihad, where Liverpool were dominated for long periods because they couldn’t find a way to link the lines. Klopp’s side relied too much on long balls forward or moments of inspiration from Thiago Alcantara.
After an exhausting midweek game for Man City (Liverpool can rest players for their second leg against Benfica) and without home advantage for Guardiola, Liverpool should edge it.