Palace’s game of the season lived up to its billing as a Wilfried Zaha brace helped them to a 3-2 victory against Brighton and Hove Albion and clinch a huge victory in the context of their campaign.
Unbelievably all the scoring occurred in the first half with Zaha grabbing an early lead for his side which was doubled by James Tomkins, but after Glenn Murray pulled one back, Zaha doubled his tally to put the Eagles back in control.
However, Jose Izquierdo reduced the deficit before half-time which made for a nervy second half for all those clad in red and blue, but Roy Hodgson’s team bravely clung on to claim a massive victory – putting them just one point behind their opponents but, more crucially, six above the drop-zone.
Having waited 1,801 days for a visit from their bitter rivals, a sunkissed Selhurst was boisterous as the teams entered the fray and within five minutes of kick-off, the noise levels could be heard right across south London as the Eagles took control of proceedings by grabbing the opener.
Andros Townsend won an early corner which Luka Milivojevic cleverly played short to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who in turn returned it to the Serbian. The skipper drove a shot goalwards which Mathew Ryan saved, but it dropped perfectly for Zaha to prod home from a matter of centimetres to ignite a crazy opening 45.
Roy Hodgson’s team continued to press and Townsend saw a fine chest and volley from distance cause Ryan issues and the Aussie stopper could only bundle it around his post, but that would lead to the second goal on 14 minutes after an almighty scramble.
Townsend whipped an excellent delivery into the box which was met by the head of Tomkins, and his attempt was well blocked by the Seagulls keeper but the ball squirmed free. Eagles and Seagulls flocked towards it, and eventually James McArthur was able to drive a shot goalwards which was stopped on the line by the hand of Shane Duffy, but any controversy was avoided as Tomkins lashed home the rebound to put his team in firm control.
And they needed to be as just four minutes later, Brighton pulled a goal back with their first attack. Once again a corner did the damage as Pascal Gross’ delivery caused problems and Lewis Dunk was allowed a free header which he nodded towards the target, and from a similar distance as Zaha’s opener, Murray hooked the ball in off the bar to net against his former club for the second successive game.
The jubilant home fans were stunned, but that feeling was fleeting as a crazy half continued in Palace’s favour as a third goal in a 10 minute spell fell to the hosts. Milivojevic lofted a scooped pass into the area that was begging for someone to attack, and just as he famously did in the play-off semi-final five years ago, Zaha dived in and drove a header past the helpless Ryan to return Selhurst to its ecstatic state.
Looking for his first career hat-trick, the Ivorian teased his way past Gaetan Bong to hit a grasscutter at Ryan, but despite a lack of possession in the final third during the first half, Brighton’s clincialness dragged them back into the game again on 34 minutes. Jurgen Locadia held the ball up and played in the overlapping Izquierdo who escaped past Joel Ward and bent a shot around Wayne Hennessey’s dive, find the far corner and net the Seagulls’ second from just two first half attempts on target.
Only an excellent low stop by Ryan prevented Palace taking a two-goal lead into the break when Milivojevic had a go from distance, but while the half-time whistle allowed everyone inside Selhurst to allow their brood pressure to drop, 15 minutes after play restarted Palace hearts were in mouth when Murray stretched to reach a Beram Kayal pass but thankfully his shot trickled wide.
It was always unlikely that the second half would match the drama of its predecessor, but while it may have been lacking in goalmouth action, the nerves continued to build around the old ground as the minutes ticked by, especially with the visitors creating the only chances of note and Palace’s recent record of conceding late heartbreakers.
Fingernails were being bitten with eight minutes to go when Hennessey was forced to produce an excellent reaction save to deny Dale Stephens from long range after the Welshman had punched away a cross, and in stoppage-time fans were peering through their fingers when a deep ball found Murray at the back post but he miskicked when well-positioned and the chance went begging.
But minutes later, the relief poured into the SE25 skies as the final whistle was blown, handing the home supporters the chance to celebrate a victory on their own patch for the first time since January, at just the perfect time.
Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt, McArthur, Milivojevic, Cabaye (Benteke 71), Loftus-Cheek (Riedewald 79), Townsend, Zaha. Subs not used: Speroni, Wan-Bissaka, Kelly, Lee, Sørloth.
Brighton: Ryan, Schelotto, Duffy, Dunk, Bong (March 85), Locadia (Knockaert 46), Stephens, Kayal, Izquierdo, Gross (Ulloa 71), Murray. Subs not used: Krul, Bruno, Goldson, Baldock.