By Martin Sykes
Pundit defying Huddersfield Town opened their first Premier League season with a performance of aggression, tenacity and spirit to record an excellent, if not entirely flawless, win over a largely incoherent Crystal Palace, roared on by an insanely excited following who couldn’t have wished for a better day.
The symmetry of playing at Selhurst Park 45 years on from their last top flight appearance had been well noted in the frantic lead up to the big day. Understandably, given that it’s relevance was only apparent after the event, the fact that Town’s last 3 goal haul amongst the elite was at the same venue in March 1971 was overlooked.
Betraying no sign of nerves, Town always looked far better prepared than their individually talented but collectively confused hosts – an echo of last season’s early games – and should have been in front after just 2 minutes when a sweeping move down the right was worked in to the box but Tom Ince’s effort was easily saved.
Hunting in packs, as they did for the entire duration, Town gave away too many free kicks in the opening period. Some of the decisions by Moss were a little soft, but produced unnecessary pressure and, inevitably, a booking for Smith on the half hour which would have repercussions later in the game.
By the time Town’s aggressive challenges had finally exasperated the referee, however, they were two goals up and largely in control.
With Billing and Mooy controlling the middle of the park in possession and the defence handling Palace’s not inconsiderable attacking threats with calm authority, Town began to assert themselves on their hosts.
Palmer and Billing had unthreatening attempts easily saved by the otherwise vulnerable Hennessey, but space was being found – particularly on the left where the Palace wingback Ward was being increasingly isolated. Ineffective going forward – despite having the potent threat of Benteke to aim at, his crossing was woeful – and defensively suspect, the Eagles’ stalwart appears unsuited to the role De Boer’s system has imposed, and he was remorselessly targeted as the weak point.
The breakthrough came with a well worked corner routine. Mooy, looking every inch a top flight player, hit the near post and Schindler met it perfectly to flick on and induce panic. With Kachunga’s lunge eluding contact, Zanka was on hand to connect – despite tongue in cheek claims of scoring after the game, the Dane’s intervention ricocheted in off the hapless Ward.
Minutes later, Billing, Löwe and Mooy combined to free the Australian down the left and his inch perfect cross was met by the hugely impressive Mounié who planted a perfect centre forward header past Hennessey.
The stunned home side rallied after the goals, knowing that a response their attacking talent could well create would bring them back in to the game and Zaha very nearly provided it. A rare Löwe error – stumbling while trying to intercept a Benteke flick on – let in the pacy winger and only a deflection off the foot of the alert Lössl who narrowed the gap effectively, prevented a timely and potentially game changing goal for the home side. To add insult to injury, a goal kick was awarded.
Despite carrying latent menace, this was the only real clear opportunity for Palace as Town defended stoutly and vigorously. The Schindler/ Zanka partnership held firm, aided and abetted by energetic covering of the team mates in front and at the side of them.
Mounié provided a massive contribution with his defending at corners; heading out several and volleying away another, while Lössl commanded his box authoritatively.
At the other end, Town’s corners were often dangerous and Zanka could have trebled the lead on the half hour but his header from Moody’s cross drifted just wide (though there were probably enough defenders on the line to clear had it been on target).
The final few minutes of the half dragged a little as Town came under some pressure with Benteke heading wide, Zaha drawing a routine save and Puncheon firing well over the bar after a half cleared corner, but as proceedings drew to a close the visitors stood strong and maintained their advantage.
Townsend, surprisingly on the bench, was introduced by De Boer after the break, emphasising the offensive talent at his disposal, but Town started the half strongly and a Löwe drive nearly caught Hennessey napping and Mounié was unable to capitalise on the rebound as his first touch drove him too wide. A third goal at that point would have demoralised the most resilient of teams, but the home side were still in it.
With the impressive Loftus-Cheek dictating play, Palace began to exert some control for the first time. While Town kept their shape and aggression, possession was conceded a little more easily and pressure was building, not helped by more infractions leading to free kicks.
Lössl produced a fine save to his right to deny Benteke’s header from a corner – the first of several potential turning points as Palace began to resemble a team with a semblance of a plan rather than simply relying on individual talent.
The most dangerous moment came from a Town corner. Billing, otherwise excellent until slightly fading at the end, sliced a nothing ball from the edge of the area instead of taking the obvious option to shoot and Palace moved the ball quickly to Zaha. With oceans of space available in front of him, a clearly alarmed Smith impeded his inevitable progress with a half grab of his shoulders before remembering that yellow card from the first half. The attempt proved decisive (and, arguably, should have resulted in a retrospective 2nd yellow after advantage had been played) as it gave Löwe just enough time to cover with a magnificent tackle which stopped Zaha in his tracks.
Sensibly, Smith was replaced almost immediately by Williams who, after a shaky few minutes, settled well in to the unfamiliar role (a back up right back is a priority with Cranie injured and the deal for Yiadom thwarted).
Palace were largely unable to capitalise on their greater share of possession, but this hardly relieved the tension in the away support – we instinctively knew that a home goal would rewrite the script and that the Eagles had the players who could instigate the change.
Still, however, the defence stood firm with blocks, interceptions and covering. Lössl was not to be troubled unduly again, though he would have had little chance with a Scott Dann effort following a corner. Left unmarked, the defender’s first time shot sailed over the bar when he really should have halved the deficit.
To double the home crowd’s misery, Town immediately went up the field to score the decisive third.
Quaner, on for Kasey Palmer, latched on to a long clearance from Lössl and strode forward with some menace. Mounié made a smart move to his right to leave his potential marker marginally stranded and an inch perfect pass from Quaner was swept home to seal the points.
Delirium ensued as the travelling support knew that not only had the game been won, scores from elsewhere meant Town would be at the top of the top table; we could suspend our cynicism of ludicrously early listings just this once!
The delight at a comprehensive win on the first day – a rarity for Town in any league, never mind in the top one – was sensibly prevented from becoming euphoria by Wagner after the game.
Palace proved to be the perfect opponent. Their confused and unfamiliar tactics suppressed rather than aided the talent they possess and, even then, the spurning of the two golden opportunities they had, along with Lössl’s fine debut, were as decisive as Town’s own energetic and coordinated performance.
The win was thoroughly deserved however, and every player contributed significantly to the achievement, so Wagner’s humility in victory was not churlish but realistic. For the moment, he and his charges passed the first test in some style to give us confidence and hope.
A grand day out.