In Crystal Palace’s moment of need, Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze came good once again.
How Roy Hodgson must have been relishing to the opportunity to start them together again for just the fifth time this season and have them on the same pitch for a seventh time. Deprived of at least one of their two most influential attacking players for almost the entire campaign, Palace have struggled to create and to score.
Against Sheffield United there was a reminder of the partnership which had been integral to Palace’s resurgence under Hodgson last season. As important as their contributions were, with two Eze goals, two Olise assists and a goal for the winger, it was as much about providing hope and optimism, something to look forward to, savour and appreciate. It was a reminder that games don’t always have to be completely attritional.
This was a slog at times, Palace’s defending was inadequate for both Sheffield United goals, but with Olise and Eze on the pitch there was always the chance to outscore their opponents and recover from a poor start.
After Olise was replaced in the 69th minute, Palace had only one shot, with Eze testing Foderingham, while after the midfielder was substituted on 78 minutes, there were no further Palace shots for the remaining 23 minutes (including the 11 played in stoppage time).
“You saw that when they both came off, it was a bit harder for the lads who have to shoulder the burden because what they’re capable of doing is probably a little bit higher than the average level of performance from teams in our place in the league,” Hodgson said.
Olise has assisted Eze seven times in the Premier League, the joint-most from a Palace player for a team-mate, along with Andros Townsend for Christian Benteke and James McArthur for Wilfried Zaha.
During that run at the end of last season, after a 2-0 win over Bournemouth, Olise reached 10 assists, of which 50 per cent were for Eze. That tally being exactly half of the latter’s Premier League goals at that stage. A blossoming relationship on and off the pitch has finally been rekindled. As impressive as Eze was against Sheffield United, including one moment in which he controlled the ball perfectly before performing keepy-uppies to tease defender Auston Trusty, it was the combination of the two that was special.
That is no coincidence. They have an awareness of what each other are going to do, it has been learnt over time. The only disappointing thing is that they have had so little opportunity to demonstrate it this season. “I know whenever Michael has the ball he’s looking for that type of pass,” Eze said about the first equalising goal where Olise chipped a ball in for him to acrobatically volley into the net.
It was the winger who terrorised Sheffield United all evening. His month-long absence through a hamstring injury was scarcely noticeable, save for the alarming moment when he sought the attention of the physio and was immediately substituted. That was seemingly more a precaution than anything more serious but there will always be heightened concern when he and Eze, who also went off with a potential problem, look to be injured.
Olise now has four goals and three assists from his last five games. Palace’s player of the year last season is almost unstoppable. Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was resigned to his side’s fate due to the performances of the pair. “When you’re up against two players who are worth more than £50million each, sometimes you just have to hold your hands up,” he said
Victory on Tuesday night was important for Palace to avoid being dragged ever closer to the relegation zone and for Hodgson to relieve some of the pressure he has come under for a poor run of results.
For that he has Eze and Olise to thank. It will not be for him to be concerned about, given he is almost certain to not be Palace manager next season, but keeping hold of them beyond the summer will prove to be extremely challenging. Even if only one of the two leave, Palace will desperately need to find adequate replacements. That process has surely already begun.
The funds raised will slightly soften the blow, but ignoring the commercial aspect, their enthusiasm and mischievousness on and off the pitch, and their flair in games will be sorely missed if they do leave.
An outstanding performance against Leeds United in April saw Olise claim three assists in a 5-1 win. His two combined with a goal here made him the first Palace player to register three goal involvements in more than one Premier League game.
Eze was a beneficiary that day as well, but most importantly it galvanised Palace and provided momentum. With a trip to arch-rivals Brighton & Hove Albion next up on Saturday, Palace will be desperate for them to replicate it this time around.
This partnership will probably be cut short because it is so productive, and for that reason it is worth taking the opportunity to fully appreciate while it is here. Hodgson certainly will.
(Top photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)