It’s crunch time in the EPL relegation race. With eight games to go, only West Bromwich Albion (-4000 to be relegated) seems certain to be demoted. (West Brom has only 20 points, seven fewer than the EPL’s second-worst side. The EPL’s three worst teams are relegated each season.) For every other team, it’s going to be a mad dash to the finish.
That’s good news for Crystal Palace (+250). Even though they’re currently tied for 18th place with Stoke City (-140) at 27 points, Palace has every reason for optimism about its chances of staying in the EPL for another season.
Here are three reasons why Crystal Palace should be safe for another year.
All odds courtesy of 5dimes on March 15.
The Standings are Deceiving
The first piece of good news for the Eagles is that they seem to be quite a bit better than their record indicates. Crystal Palace’s defense isn’t great — they’ve given up 48 goals — but it’s better than relegation level, as there are five teams who have conceded more. And their expected goals (also known as xG) allowed is slightly better, with just under 45 expected goals conceded, (a number determined by weighing a number of factors, including shot quality and quantity), which is also better than five other squads.
But the eye-opening numbers are on the attacking side of the ball, where Palace’s 28 goals, the fifth-worst mark in the EPL, are a whopping 14 below their expected goals prediction. No team outside the Premier League’s top six has more expected goals than Crystal Palace’s almost 42.
The major culprit in Palace’s goal-scoring woes is Christian Benteke. He has only two goals this season despite being the team’s expected goal leader with a little over nine xGs. That lack of conversion from a striker is hard for a team to overcome. But it’s not like Benteke has a history of being a wayward ball striker. Last year with Crystal Palace he scored 15 goals and had 17 expected goals. The season before that, in limited minutes with Liverpool, he generated nine goals from 10 expected goals. And in 2014-15 with Aston Villa, he scored 13 goals compared to 8.5 expected goals.
There’s nothing about Benteke that suggests he is anything other than a player who scores goals roughly in line with what expected goals predicts. In fact, not only has the Belgian been consistent over the course of his career in that regard, he’s also been very consistent when it comes to exactly how many goal-scoring opportunities he creates. Over the last four seasons, he’s run up 0.45 expected goals per 90 minutes of game time. This season, he’s generated 0.42.
There’s no reason to think that Benteke’s abilities have changed from that sort of form despite his rough finishing this season. He’s only 27 years old, and while he does have an injury history, including missing seven games early this season with a medial collateral ligament injury, that hasn’t slowed down his production in the past. So, despite his poor finishing this season, there’s no reason to think that Benteke will do anything other than score a little under half a goal per game over the last eight matches of this season. If he does that, Palace will be fine.
Getting (a Little) Healthier
One of the biggest challenges for Crystal Palace this season has been a seemingly unending string of injuries. The team was left for dead after a hideous start to the season. They lost their first seven games while not scoring a single goal, and didn’t record their second win of the season until Nov. 25. Their form dramatically improved after that, but by the end of December the injury cloud descended. On Dec. 28, attacking midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek hurt his ankle. Three days later. both Scott Dann and Jason Puncheon tore cruciate ligaments in the same match. A month later, one of Puncheon’s replacements, Bakary Sako, had his season ended as well.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Palace’s star winger, Wilfried Zaha, injured his knee at the beginning of February. Had the team stayed healthy, it’s possible they would have avoided the relegation battle altogether, but losing so many attacking players all at once was too much to overcome.
Palace is now approaching the light at the end of the injury tunnel. Zaha has returned faster than expected, making a substitute appearance last weekend against Chelsea. He’s likely to be back in the starting lineup this weekend as the team travels to relegation rivals Huddersfield Town (+255). Loftus-Cheek, whose injury lingered longer than expected, is also back in training and likely to join the team either this weekend or for their March 31 showdown with Liverpool.
Getting those two attackers back will be a huge boon to manager Roy Hodgson. Without them he’s been forced into a two-striker system pairing Benteke and young Norwegian striker Alexander Sørloth. The fit is decidedly awkward, with both players being comfortable as target men in the box and neither excelling at dropping deep, receiving the ball at their feet, or doing the kinds of creative things that help generate chances. Palace can now return to a more typical system which deploys one target man, two wingers in Zaha and the ever-present Andros Townsend, and a more typical attacking midfielder in Loftus-Cheek.
It’s All About the Schedule
Palace’s slide back into the relegation zone has come thanks to a seven-game winless streak. They haven’t won since a 1-0 home victory on Jan. 13 over Burnley. Part of the problem, in addition to the injuries, is that their schedule has been brutal over the last two months. Those seven games included losses against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. It’s hard to find fault with losing to teams in the top six (even if Palace did blow a two-goal lead against United in heartbreaking fashion).
However, the rest of the season’s schedule is relatively soft. They host Liverpool at the end of the month, but other than that, Palace’s hardest matches remaining are a trip to Bournemouth and a visit from Leicester. Meanwhile, Stoke (which, like Palace, has 27 points) still has Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham left on the schedule. Southampton, which is in 17th and just fired manager Mauricio Pellegrino and replaced him with Mark Hughes (previously of Stoke), has a one-point advantage on Palace, but they still have Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City on the schedule.
West Ham has 30 points, but they also have half of the top six left to play. The same thing is true of Huddersfield and Swansea, which both have 31 points and three matches against big-six sides. Newcastle, which sits 13th with 32 points, only has two tilts against teams one through six in the table; the same goes for 12th place Bournemouth. In fact, the only teams besides Palace that have just a single match remaining against the top six are seventh-place Burnley and eighth-place Leicester City.
Crystal Palace has the optimistic trifecta going into the home stretch this season. Their numbers suggest they’re better than they appear. As players return from injury, they’re likely to get better than they were. And the teams around them have a harder schedule left than they do. If the Eagles keep doing what they’re doing, it’s likely they’ll live to see another season in the EPL.