February 26, 2015

It seemed leading into Christmas, plenty of the football gods were gathering behind Crystal Palace as their London upstart of choice, then suddenly swapped out their Eagles' shirts for West Ham United kits.

Maybe they knew Dimitri Payet jerseys would soon be in high demand.

If Leicester City are the unquestioned darlings of the Premier League season, the Hammers are at least competing for such honours in the second round of fixtures. And Palace - they've fallen so far they're on relegation-certainty Aston Villa's level in that time, yet like the Hammers remain alive in the FA Cup.

The Eagles will try to halt an alarming slide toward the drop zone Saturday at Upton Park, while West Ham return from the international window expecting three points in a mere tune-up of a London derby before a potentially season-defining three-match span.

Back on Boxing Day, West Ham (13-11-6) drew 1-1 at last-place Villa to extend a winless streak to eight matches, dropping them to 10th in the table and four points back of streaking Palace (9-6-15). Maintaining a top-half finish through the second cycle seemed a reasonable goal.

Just over three months later, they're fifth on 50 points along with Manchester United. The Hammers hold a one-goal advantage on goal difference - this for a club that's never finished a Premier League season with a positive goal difference. Their plus-12 mark with eight matches remaining trails only the top four, and they're seven points shy of a club-record 57 established in 1998-99 when they finished a club-best fifth.

Dating to their 2-1 win over Southampton on Dec. 28, West Ham's 2.00 points per match over a 7-3-2 span rank ahead of all top-flight teams other than Tottenham Hotspur (2.23) and Leicester (2.15), who have each played one more game than the Hammers.

"We are in a great position and we have a chance to win the three points here again at home and we need to give 120 percent like we did before the international break," goalkeeper Adrian, who's kept three straight home clean sheets, told the club's official website. "I think we are playing well and showing a good performance and are in a great moment."

A week after Palace, West Ham host Arsenal before a midweek visit from Manchester United for a spot in the FA Cup semifinals, then turn around at the weekend to go to front-running Leicester.

Difficulty and potential European implications aside, the Hammers are suddenly five points back of former title favourites Arsenal and far from reliant on the FA Cup to qualify for continental football.

They owe much of that success to Payet, who made the most of the international window by impressing for France, scoring on a 35-yard free kick in Tuesday's 4-2 win over Russia a minute after subbing on. It's just the latest highlight in a season that's included eight goals and eight assists in 23 league matches for the midfielder. He has an assist in his last three top-flight matches and also scored the winner in a 3-2 final at Everton on March 5.

"My aim was to try to play as well with the national side as I have been with West Ham," Payet said. "I managed to attack these games with confidence and I played well in both games, both in important situations. It's a great return, to score and to set one up. Making a difference is always what counts in football. It's a good omen for what's to come."

Palace might have been making such positive statements after a Boxing Day draw at Bournemouth moved them into fifth, one point clear of Manchester United and four off Manchester City in the top four.

Little did they know that match would start a 13-game winless span with nine goals scored. After a 1-0 home loss to the Foxes on March 19, the Eagles are 15th on 33 points and seven points clear of relegation. The second cycle of fixtures has produced two points for Palace, while historically bad Aston Villa have eight with one more match played. Villa even had eight in the first round, which is tied with 2011-12 Wolverhampton for the worst total for a cycle since Derby County had four points in the 2007-08 second round.

The Eagles have eight matches to clear themselves of that company, but aside from staying up and manager Alan Pardew needing to do enough to keep his job, there's little reason to focus on the league with a spot in the FA Cup semifinals secured. Even Pardew hinted at league matches acting as confidence builders for the cup after the loss to Leicester.

"We need to get a couple of wins and get them before the semifinal to give ourselves some breathing space, we have some difficult games but this is a team that can win at any time, we have proved that in the first half of the season and in the cup," he told the club's official website.

"But in the second half of the season we haven't had that win that would have taken some pressure off. We handled it well today but it just wouldn't come for us."

Palace have won the last two meetings at Upton Park, but the reverse fixture resulted in a 3-1 West Ham win Oct. 17. Payet capped it with a stoppage-time strike. Fellow France midfielder Yohan Cabaye scored from the spot for Palace and has three goals in his last two matches against West Ham.

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