13 August 2014

Crystal Palace: a trip-wire akin to Aston Villa?

At long last, the season is upon us. Even after a summer filled with World Cup action, a trip to New York, the Emirates Cup, and the Community Shield, nothing quite scratches the itch like a proper Prem match. Come Saturday, finally, we'll have a clash on our hands. It comes through a visit from a down-on-its-luck squad hoping to bravely stave off relegation and stay up in the Prem. Following closely on the heels of this match is the two-leg Champions League qualifier with a Turkish club whose supporters defy social norms. It sounds a bit like the screenplay for last year's season opener, one that saw us lose rather infamously to Aston Villa at home on opening day. Replace Aston Villa with Crystal Palace and Fenerbahçe with Beşiktaş, and it sounds like a recipe for repeating last season's debacle.

A contrast in styles...
It's not that far-fetched; after all, Palace are hardly Stoke 2.0 (which would make Palace's players the equivalent of, say, Homo habilis instead of Stoke's Neandertals?). Tony Pulis has a reputation, to be sure, but the Eagles played a style a bit more evolved from how the Potters had played for Pulis. For that matter, the same might be said of Stoke without Pulis. That's a story for another day. What matters here is that, with Pulis in charge, Crystal Palace achieved its highest-ever finish in the Prem—11th—and will stay in the top-flight for a second consecutive season. This they did through a strong finish to the 2013-14 season, following a February loss at the Emirates by taking 18 points from 42 available, including a win at Goodison Park, a home-win over Chelsea, and a draw with Liverpool. Their mid-table finish may not thoroughly impress, but Pulis is always happy to offer villainy to Wenger's virtue, all the more so on the opening day of a season so pregnant with promise.

Still, I welcome, nay, invite an opening-season loss. The loss to Aston Villa brought us to our knees. It shook us to our foundations. It made us question, perhaps more thoroughly than any other previous loss, the direction the club was going under Arsène. The calls for "Wenger out" probably reached a fever-pitch previously unheard even after heavier losses against more-hated rivals or shockers against lower-tier clubs. Whether the shock came through the scoreline, the silverware at stake, or both, we've suffered some significant losses. However, the loss at home to Aston Villa last August seemed to signify a nadir, a point of no return, a stumbling out of the the top four and a post-mortem.

Then again, Mesut Özil.

Two weeks after losing to Aston Villa, we were greeted by the delightful, stunning news that one of the world's most-creative midfielders, responsible for more assists, key passes, and chances created than perhaps any other player in the previous five years, would be joining Arsenal. Think back to those moments—contrast how you felt after we lost to Villa against how you felt when we signed Özil. For all of the unfulfilled hype around Jovetić or Higuaín or Suárez, the exhiliration of Özil's arrival eclipsed the darker feelings of missing out on those players or losing at home to Villa.

Fast-forward to Saturday. Would you accept a loss to Crystal Palace—a precious three points—if it brought us the striker we crave? Whose signing would justify such a loss—Balotelli? Benzema? Cavani?I realize that the choice is hardly that simple, of course, but it's tantalizing to think of who might join the squad should we stumble on Saturday.

That's what trip-wires are all about, after all: a small spark that triggers a larger explosion. In this case, an early-season loss might serve as the spark that gets Arsène, famous for keeping the powder dry, to set the Prem afire.