In-form Palace and Townsend ready to face Liverpool
Crystal Palace's recent upturn in form has been remarkable. Since the 4-0 loss to Sunderland on Feb. 4 and subsequent, somewhat forgotten 1-0 defeat to Stoke City, Palace have gone on a run that has yielded a total of 16 points from 21 available -- a return that has put the club on the brink of Premier League safety when many had written the side off.
Manager Sam Allardyce made it clear following his first few games at Palace that the character the team previously exhibited -- the relentless, fearless attitude and energy that rescued the club from relegation two seasons in a row -- had been abandoned, and that his job would be to bring it back. Through new signings, new tactics, new training methods and a subsequent change in fitness levels, that has happened.
There are many reasons why Palace have had this upturn. The simple solution is to credit it almost entirely to the arrival of Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic in January. But the improvement goes deeper than that. There has been a collective adjustment in the squad, whether on the periphery or the first team, that has changed how the team functions. There is no greater example of this than the brilliance of Andros Townsend in recent weeks.
The England international arrived at Palace with a £13m price tag and the task of filling Yannick Bolasie's boots. The expectation was that Townsend would be just as extravagant, just as attacking and more capable of providing a greater goal threat. However, whether it was a clash of personalities or a case of buyer's remorse, former Palace manager Alan Pardew's selection of Townsend deteriorated to a point where Chung-Yong Lee was selected in preference.
Townsend's performances were those of a player going through the motions, rather than of one trying his best to work for the team. Lacklustre displays were met with boos as Palace's form worsened. The expectation was that the player would leave in the January transfer window -- a return to Newcastle looked likely -- and it was only confirmed after on transfer deadline day that he would stay and fight for his place.
His turnaround under Allardyce has been impressive. Townsend cites a discussion with assistant manager Sammy Lee as one of the reasons behind that change. The two had a heart to heart following some disappointing performances in training, and a willingness between the new manager and the player to work together has changed Townsend's fortunes at the club.
Allardyce, to his credit, continued to select Townsend despite frustrating outings from the player. A collective improvement in fitness throughout the entire team has changed how Townsend works in the side. He frequently saw himself substituted at 70 minutes or earlier prior to Allardyce's arrival; Townsend now typically plays 90 minutes. His role is no longer purely to take the ball and attack, but to defend, too. It's a change he has adapted to willingly.
Against Arsenal on Apr. 10, Townsend continuously chased and harried defenders. Against Leicester last Saturday, he made sliding tackles that resulted in Palace attacks. These might be small, insignificant incidents for players, but they are moments that stick in the minds of supporters. It helps too that he has, directly and indirectly, contributed to more than five goals in the past three weeks.
A player many would have dismissed in January is now showing the quality he was originally signed for. Townsend is just an example of how more defined tactics and more specific fitness requirements have contributed to Palace's improvement. Joel Ward, Martin Kelly, Yohan Cabaye, Jason Puncheon, James Tomkins and Christian Benteke have all benefited from a more detail-driven approach.
On Sunday, Palace will face a Liverpool side that have themselves had a bounce in form. It is unlikely there will be a great deal of change to the Palace side that drew with Leicester, although the squad will not feature Sakho, who can't play due to the loan agreement between the two sides. Should Tomkins be fit, it would be fair to assume that he and Kelly will play alongside each other, with Wayne Hennessey behind them in goal.
Palace's form means that the squad does pick itself. Palace's bench, which for so long has looked like the team's Achilles' heel, is gradually being strengthened by the return to fitness of first-team players. James McArthur made his return to competitive action against Leicester, while there has been talk of Loic Remy returning to training this week, too.
The Eagles have had a decent record at Anfield in recent seasons, and Allardyce will hope to continue that record on Sunday. With a squad that is harder working, fitter and better organised, Palace have a good chance of getting a point or even three.
Robert Sutherland is ESPN FC's Crystal Palace blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @RoDuSu.