LONDON — Was this the weekend on which the Premier League relegation question was answered? There’s been little tension at the top of the table for some time, so the mad scrap to avoid the drop has been where any intrigue has been located.
Not any more, perhaps. With 20 minutes to go in Southampton’s game against Chelsea and Mark Hughes’s side leading 2-0, the drama looked set to continue. But then Olivier Giroud made his mark and, suddenly, Saints’ bubble of hope was burst. They could only cast their eyes to Selhurst Park, hoping for a Brighton win to keep Crystal Palace within touching distance.
No such luck; minutes after the final whistle of Palace ‘s 3-2 win and with a good portion of the home fans still in the ground, the public address system played “Three Little Birds,” by Bob Marley. “Don’t worry, ’bout a thing,” the jubilant supporters sang, before adding with extra emphasis: “Cos every little thing, gonna be alright.”
If ever there was a post-game declaration unrepresentative of the previous 90 minutes, this was it. Show us a Palace fan who claimed victory in one of British football’s more curious rivalries was a no-doubt, in-the-bag, relaxed three points and we’ll show you the world’s most optimistic liar.
The Holmesdale End, where Palace’s loudest fans congregate, kicks out a decent noise at the best of times but it seemed particularly loud on Saturday. Banging drums, as well as screaming, throaty songs and twirling scarves above heads, seemed as good a way as any to expel nerves, of which there were plenty.
Were it not for the tension that even neutrals felt, this would have been an enormously fun game. The surprising south London sun caught out many an excessively-layered fan, while the atmosphere had the double-stacked edge of a derby combined with business-end-of-the-season imperatives and there were five goals in the first 35 minutes.
The inability of either team to defend corners saw Wilfried Zaha tap home and James Tomkins smuggle a shot through a thicket of legs for the home side, before Glenn Murray hooked a goal back for Brighton. Then Zaha both beat the offside trap and launched himself into a diving header to relax the home side.
But only a little. In these situations, with the chill hand of relegation resting on the shoulder, there’s no such thing as “comfortable” and, 10 minutes after Palace’s third, Jose Izquierdo nonchalantly curled a Thierry Henry-esque finish into the bottom corner. The drumbeats and chants from the Holmesdale End were quietened just a little.
With such a flurry before half-time, any impartial observers were no doubt giddily anticipating the same again after it. But such is the way with football that it rarely follows patterns in that way. Instead, the game took on the classic tone of a tussle between two sides for whom doom is a possibility.
Muscles tensed as they tend to do when players know every mistake could have desperate consequences. Chances were snatched at and bookings distributed for twitchy tackling mistakes rather than malicious fouls; Murray, usually as reliable a finisher as you can get in the lower half of the Premier League, skewed a late, straightforward chance off-target.
But unlike many occasions recently, when Palace have had a habit of conceding late goals, they held on.
“We died a few deaths in the last few minutes,” said manager Roy Hodgson. “There have been so many occasions when people have been sympathising with our plight and saying we deserved a lot better, and the late goals killed us again. It’s nice to know we didn’t [concede] on this occasion.”
The win puts Palace six points above the drop zone and that, with five games left, probably does mean they will be safe. Brighton are a point better off.
“We’ve always been confident of staying up,” said manager Chris Hughton. “There’s enough in our game that gives us confidence that we can get results. It’s also a question of other teams getting results as well.”
The latter point is the most important, given that Brighton’s remaining five fixtures are Tottenham (home), Burnley (away), Manchester United (home), Manchester City (away) and Liverpool (away). True, they are desperately tricky but, even if all five are lost, it would still require Southampton to make up seven points.
Given they haven’t managed a point from any of Mark Hughes’s three games so far, as well as the psychological kick in the pants that throwing it away against Chelsea might deliver, you’d have to be a significant optimist to think they will get what they require from here. Swansea are fourth-bottom, but enjoy a five-point cushion and have at least shown they’re capable of getting positive results in recent weeks.
The bottom three, by contrast, have not: In eight games apiece since the beginning of March, Southampton, Stoke and West Brom have managed nine points from a possible 72 and two of those were in a draw between the former pair. They have just one victory between them, when Southampton beat, ahem, West Brom on March 2.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.