Everton-Crystal Palace Preview
In one sense, Wednesday's match at Selhurst Park between Everton and Crystal Palace is a case of misery loving company given the sides' struggles for much of the second half of the season.
Yet it could also serve as a potential FA Cup final preview that may result in one of them playing in the Europa League next season despite the near certainty of both teams finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League table.
Crystal Palace (10-7-15) had the weight of the world lifted off their shoulders Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Norwich City, ending a 14-match winless streak in league play that started before Boxing Day. The six-point swing over a Canaries team also fighting to stay up provided the Eagles some breathing room from the drop, opening a 10-point advantage over Sunderland after the Black Cats' 2-0 loss to front-running Leicester City.
"I don't know if we're safe, but it's gone a long, long way towards it," Palace boss Alan Pardew told the league's official website. "We want to look up, mid-table is only three, four points and that's our next target."
Jason Puncheon delivered the winning goal - his first since May 16 - in the 68th minute, and the midfielder finally felt some relief during a season full of struggles.
"It's been difficult for me, I normally chip in with a few goals but I haven't done that this season and I've been disappointed in myself," he told Crystal Palace's official website. "But that's come today and I'm happy for that - it meant a lot and it was a massive win for us.
"I still think we can better what we did last season, this team is capable of winning more games and now we need to go into the FA Cup semifinal with some momentum."
One way to sustain that momentum is with defence. Palace have not recorded back-to-back clean sheets since scoreless draws against Bournemouth and Swansea City on Dec. 26 and 28, and Saturday's win marked their first shutout in league play since that 0-0 result versus the Swans.
While Everton (9-12-10) did not have the same worry woes regarding the drop as Crystal Palace, their impending trip to Wembley to face the winner of Wednesday's quarterfinal replay between West Ham United and Manchester United is currently the only salve to a season that has failed to meet expectations and turned up the heat on manager Roberto Martinez. The unrest in the blue side of Merseyside ratcheted higher with Saturday's 1-1 draw at Watford, with the fan base jeering the team off the pitch and having taken defender Leighton Baines' side in his row with his gaffer, sporting "Martinez Out" banners at Vicarage Road.
Baines maintained his spot in the starting XI despite his criticisms Everton lacked chemistry after their 1-0 defeat last week to Manchester United, and his words seemed to ring true as the team failed to deal with prosperity and conceded the equaliser inside a minute of James McCarthy's goal right before the interval.
"We were so close to half-time and it's important to go into half-time with a lead where you can refocus and reset," Martinez lamented post-match. "It's more the disappointment of the nature of the goal. It's a deadball situation, a header which bounces off the back of a Watford player and ends up in the back of the net."
Martinez will likely have to make at least one change to his first-choice lineup since defender Phil Jagielka pulled up late with a hamstring injury. Like Palace, Everton are entering a busy patch of schedule with four matches between now and their trips to Wembley in a fortnight.
"It was a real negative when Phil felt his hamstring towards the end," Martinez told the team's official website. "It is too early to tell (whether he will miss the semifinal). We have a period of five games in two weeks but he is a serious doubt for Wednesday and Crystal Palace."
Everton rescued a point at Goodison Park in the reverse fixture on Romelu Lukaku's goal nine minutes from time. Puncheon assisted on Scott Dann's goal in the 76th minute that had given the Eagles a 1-0 lead.
The Toffees are unbeaten in their last four matches (3-1-0) at Selhurst Park and have posted shutouts there in the last two.