On a mild, drab day in south London Crystal Palace eased their way past the yellow and green substance currently passing itself off as Norwich City of the Premier League with a performance that barely needed to slip out of second gear.
The score finished 3-0 at Selhurst Park but the actual numbers seemed by-the-by, a result of Palace’s players easing through the entire second half like men stoically seeing out some clock-watching festive obligation.
Odsonne Édouard scored one, made one and was a constant source of menace whenever Palace chose to press at the seams of the Norwich defence. Will Hughes, who does a fine, spiky job for Palace in central midfield, ran the game before leaving for a rest after 73 minutes.
For Osian Roberts this was a first win as stand-in for the Covid-afflicted Patrick Vieira, and three points that leave Palace ninth in the table. Not that Roberts will be taking any personal satisfaction.
He said: “I don’t enjoy it at all because I want Patrick here back in the technical area. My sole focus is making sure we do everything he wants to the best of my ability.
“Patrick is doing well, he’s delighted with the result. We’re in constant dialogue, so we can follow his instructions during the game and during the week.”
Norwich, for their part, looked bright, neat and almost totally ineffectual. Somehow the table continues to suggest Dean Smith’s team are just three points from safety, but they looked like a zombified presence, bereft of heart and edge. The defeat made it five in a row with a combined aggregate score of 14-0, the kind of run from which even “Comical” Chris Silverwood, mastermind of England’s Ashes meltdown, would struggle to pick out the positives.
“We’ve got some major injury problems, we’ve got some big players absent from this club right now,” Smith said afterwards. “The physicality and experience of Crystal Palace was the difference today.”
Odd to think now that back in August there were whispered hopes that this well-run club could somehow “game” the system with its left‑field transfer policies. In the meantime the season has dissolved into a long march to nowhere.
Palace had six fitness-related absentees of their own plus Wilfried Zaha serving a ban for the kind of red card he seems always to be seeking, and which he finally achieved on Boxing Day thanks to an impressively sustained spell of narkiness and petulance. With Connor Gallacher also unfit and Christian Benteke on the bench Palace were missing the combined source of 15 of their 24 league goals before today. They do not tend to win much without Zaha. But then, they do not often get to play Norwich either.
It took eight minutes for the first little huff to blow the door in. Hughes picked up the ball on the edge of the box, turned sharply and was tripped by a clumsy challenge from Kenny McLean. Édouard paused over the kick, drifted into a brief state of reverie, then stepped up and rolled it into the corner.
Norwich did not sag immediately. Instead they waited a few moments. This is a team that always seems to be one thrust away from disaster, even as the midfield runs through its neat patterns, as the ball is zipped about with a brittle sense of urgency.
Édouard shot into the side netting. Jeffrey Schlupp had a shot blocked by a desperate lunge. Midway through the half there was a moment of farce as the entire ground waited five minutes for the referee Paul Tierney’s microphone to be fixed. At which point Norwich did something fatal, pressing upfield and winning a couple of corners.
From the second of these Palace broke the length of the pitch, the Norwich players hanging back weirdly from Édouard as he made ground down the left.
His cut back was clipped first time into the far left-hand corner by Jean‑Philippe Mateta, the placement rather than the power beating Angus Gunn’s slightly limp dive. Four minutes later it was three, Palace players lining up to tiptoe through the Norwich cover, before the ball broke to Schlupp. His shot zinged into the far corner from a narrow angle.
Norwich might have pulled one back before the break, Sam Byram heading Przemysław Placheta’s free‑kick on to the crossbar from close range. But both teams came out for the second half with a sense that the day was already settled.
It took Palace 15 minutes to muster the energy to try to score another goal. Late on Placheta had a close‑range shot brilliantly saved by Vicente Guaita, by which point the Norwich end had taken to amusing itself by bursting out into wild do‑it-yourself celebrations, just for the laughs. It looks like a long old half‑season from here.