Crystal Palace (5), Aston Villa (0) – We end the season the way it began – crushed.  Fortunately, there was magic between.

Sunday, May 20, 16:00 – Selhurst Park

Referee: Darren Bond

Sometimes the last game of the season has important repercussions (e.g., qualifying for a European competition as our win against Brighton did in May, last year), sometimes an indirect significance (e.g., the opponent needs a result as Manchester City did when they beat us 3-2 at the Etihad 3-2 in May, 2022 to win the Premier League), and sometimes very little (as the game against Crystal Palace did on Sunday). 

Our Villans had already qualified for the 4th Premier League spot in the UEFA Champions League next season and the result had no further impact on that.  No team likes to lose any game, but the team was still in the mindset of celebrating.

There was much to savour about this Villa season for the ages.  Certainly, winning the chance to play in the Champions League after a wait of 28 years was a major achievement.  As was our Villans’ 15-game home winning streak (the last two being three days apart against Manchester City and Arsenal) that shot us up the Premier League table and showed that we were a force to reckon with.

In addition, our Villans stood out as “kingmakers” by preventing Arsenal from wresting the crown from Manchester City.  We achieved that by beating the Gunners 2-0 at the Emirates on April 14th.  In their eighteen league games in 2024, Arsenal won 16, tied one (0-0 at the Etihad against Manchester City) and lost only one, against our Villans at home on that fateful day.  They scored 54 goals and conceded only 9, with only two teams netting a brace (our Villans and Spurs).

We earned the victory by holding the Gunners at bay in the first half and seizing the momentum in the second, winning with goals by Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins.  That loss to our Villans was all the help Man City needed as they won their last nine games and prevailed over Arsenal by just two points.  As Mikel Arteta noted, but for their loss to Villa, Arsenal would have been Premier League Champions.

So, last Sunday our Villans returned to London to face Crystal Palace having already beaten five of their six London-based opponents on their turf (Fulham, Luton, Chelsea, Spurs, Brentford, as well as Arsenal) and tied at West Ham.  That streak of success occurred when it mattered.

If we were looking for clues as to how important it was for Unai Emery that his team finish with another win on the road, the announced team sheet represented the metaphoric tea leaves.  We already knew that Tielemans would not be available and reading the starting line-up told us that Emery saw that our chances of success were low and responded accordingly.

Still, it was a shock was that Martinez and Bailey were not named as starters and Torres was on the bench.  That Emery gave Chambers his first start of the season, as a holding midfielder, a position he had little experience in was also a head-scratcher.

Since Chambers will likely be moving on, Emery may have seen the game as an opportunity to attract interest in him in the marketplace (his efforts as a substitute against Liverpool were beneficial).  Similarly, Durán had only started once with Watkins (against West Ham) and that was not a “good date”.  With nothing to lose, Emery might have been wanting to see if that partnership could work.  It didn’t.

Without Torres and Bailey on the field, our Villans lost two of their best ball controllers. Their absence was reflected in the shots on goal.  Against Liverpool, the Reds’ shots on-goal advantage was 7 to 5; against Crystal Palace, their shots on-goal advantage was 9 to 2.

How much better our Villans would have played if they had needed a win. or tie, is impossible to say.  Throughout the season the squad had been decimated by injuries and, even with Martinez, Torres, and Bailey, we could have been caught short though not to the degree of a 5-0 scoreline.  Fortunately, our loyal away fans kept singing through the “rain of goals”, inspired not by what they were seeing on the field but by a season’s perspective.

So, what happened at Selhurst Park?  Well, we already knew that this was not going to be a Roy Hodgson performance.  As I had warned in my Pre-Game Assessment:

…. their new manager, Austrian Oliver Glasner, who took over in February.  He appears destined to be Emery-like in that he has already transformed the way that Palace attack.  The combination of Mateta, supported by Eze and Olise, with phenom Adam Wharton pulling the strings in midfield has made them the current hottest team in the league after Man City and Arsenal.

Sure enough, Palace oozed the confidence of a team with abundant skill that had dissembled West Ham, Newcastle, and Manchester United in their most recent home games.  The home team also benefited from the return of Marc Guéhi from injury.  That let them move Chris Richards, the US international to replace an injured Will Hughes.

While Palace started on the front foot, our Villans were able to counter with speed and precision.  Both Watkins and Durán were manhandled, particularly, by Andersen with no yellow card shown or penalty given.  Then, out of nothing, Palace grabbed the lead. 

Wharton slipped a pass to Olise who ran at our low block lined along the penalty area and, at the right moment, anticipated Mateta rolling around Carlos.  The league’s hottest striker swept the ball into Olsen’s left corner with aplomb.  Crystal Palace 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 9th minute. 

Torres who normally manages the offside trap, was not there, and his replacement (Lenglet) was the one (according to VAR) who appeared to play Mateta onside.  This was a harbinger of what was to come (against Liverpool, we had caught the Reds offside 6 times, but we were only able to catch Palace offside twice).  No wonder they were able to get 9 shots on-target.

Soon after, Luiz sent a wonderful pass between Andersen and Guéhi for Diaby to run onto.  Our French international showed his speed and outpaced his markers and let his shot go as he entered the penalty area.  Dean Henderson, the goalie, was well off his line and anticipated that the Frenchman’s left-foot shot would be to his right and it was.  The save bounced to the goalie’s right, and it would have been a tap-in for Ollie Watkins, following up, if not for Nathan Clyne who covered well and conceded a corner.

From Luiz’s whipped corner, Anderson got a touch and deflected the cross to Diaby to the right of the goal.  Moussa did well to volley into the ground only to see Henderson fingertip save over the bar for another corner.  This time, Watkins got his head to the ball.  Again, it was headed into the ground, but this time Guéhi was able to clear.

Palace continued to see Watkins as a threat that needed to be stopped by any means, including tearing the shirt off his back.  This time Andersen did get a yellow card. 

Villa continued to press but were lacking the precision necessary to break through in the final third.   Tielemans, Bailey and Rogers were sorely missed.  Our failure to tie the game was punished at the other end of the field.  Neat, precise, and swift passes on the right saw Muñoz get beyond Digne to zip a tempting pass across 6-yard-box.  It was between Carlos and Olsen, and Mateta had only to extend his foot and redirect into the roof of the net.  Crystal Palace 2, Aston Villa 0 in the 39th minute.

With sunny skies and summer temperatures, the home team were able to dominate possession and wear-out our Villans.  With Konsa getting little help from Chambers or Diaby, it was only a matter of time before Eze got a shot on goal.  It was helped by a deflection off Diaby and the highly rated attacking midfielder raced clear to the edge of the area before lashing a shot just inside Olsen’s near post.  Perhaps Carlos was too slow to closedown the shot, but Olsen had no chance.  Crystal Palace 3, Aston Villa 0 in the 54th minute.

From a similar run not long after, Carlos did step forward, forcing Eze to cut to his right.  With our defenders focused on him, Eze cleverly slipped a pass to Mateta.  The English striker has the fast feet and composure to handle a pass in the middle of the penalty box and he sent a bullet past Olsen before the keeper could get down to save.  Crystal Palace 4, Aston Villa 0 in the 63rd minute.  Mateta had a hat trick.

From a give and go, just outside the box, Eze and Mateta combined again only, this time, it was Eze who found the corner of the net.  Crystal Palace 5, Aston Villa 0 in the 69th minute. 

Emery brought on some of his young subs for a run (Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam, Munroe, and Kellyman) and Palace eased off the gas.  A lopsided loss was an unfortunate end to a magnificent season that Emery likely regrets.  Our Villans would have still been challenged if Martinez, Torres, and Bailey had started, but they would have put up more of a fight and probably got a point.

Fortunately, this game will soon be forgotten when the Pre-Season begins in July.

Crystal Palace (3, 4, 2, 1): Henderson, Clyne, Andersen (Tomkins 87′), Guéhi (Lerma 76′), Muñoz, Wharton (Riedewald 87′), Richards, Mitchell, Olise, Eze (Ayew 88′), Mateta (Édouard 76′)

Unused Subs: Ward, Tomkins, Lerma, Ayew, Schlupp, Édouard, Matthews, Riedewald, Ozoh

Aston Villa (4, 4, 2): Olsen, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Digne, Diaby (Kesler Hayden 87′), Chambers (Iroegbunam 68′), Douglas Luiz, McGinn (Munroe 87′), Durán, Watkins (Kellyman 68′)

Unused Subs: Torres, Gauci, Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam, Emery, Munroe, Kellyman, Young

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