Bournemouth-Crystal Palace Preview
If every match were for a cup trophy, Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace side would be in far better shape than they are entering Saturday's contest against Bournemouth in a matchup of the current bottom two teams in the Premier League at Selhurst Park.
Pardew's Eagles (0-0-2) - 2016 FA Cup runners-up - are the only team to have failed to score in their opening two matches and are out of the cellar only due to a slightly better goal difference than the Cherries (0-0-2). The selling of Yannick Bolasie to Everton has contributed to a slow start in league play that Pardew is hoping isn't a hangover of last season's form from Boxing Day to now.
But there is help on the way.
Record signing Christian Benteke made his debut in Tuesday's 2-0 League Cup victory over Blackpool as Palace advanced to play at Southampton in the third round next month. After a 45-minute stint, Pardew may hand the £32 million man his first Premier League action.
"Christian Benteke had 45 minutes, I thought he showed flashes of why we spent a club record fee on him," Pardew told the team's official website. "He hasn't had a lot of match action and even though we were on the side of a caution with him tonight, he looks really good.
"I will have a think about tonight; look at what's available before I decide whether he will be in my starting lineup on Saturday."
Benteke was out of place in Jurgen Klopp's high-pressing Liverpool offence, but Pardew is hedging the Belgium international will find the form that helped him score 42 goals over three seasons at Aston Villa. He also thinks Benteke can form a potent combination with Connor Wickham, who sealed Tuesday's win with a goal early in the second half.
"He has had a great responsibility being the only striker that we have had available due to injuries and there has been a lot of pressure on him," Pardew said of the 23-year-old Wickham. "With Christian's arrival he has had a bit of a weight lifted from him, he was fresher, sharper and looked better for it."
If this is Pardew's first-choice pairing, it makes sense disgruntled winger Wilfried Zaha is looking for an exit plan. Palace reportedly rejected a £15 million bid for Zaha by Tottenham Hotspur, who are in need of building depth for Champions League play, on Thursday.
The 23-year-old Zaha, who came up through Palace's academy, had five goals in 43 matches last season.
After scoring 23 goals in the first 17 matches last season during which Palace accumulated 29 points, they have netted just 16 while going 2-7-14 in their previous 23 starting with a scoreless draw at Bournemouth on Boxing Day. Around those 23 league matches, the Eagles have recorded six cup victories.
Like Crystal Palace, Bournemouth are trying to find their way and hoping a League Cup victory serves as an elixir for their struggles. The Cherries advanced to the third round by grinding out a 2-1 win at League Two leaders Morecambe on Wednesday, with Marc Wilson scoring the winner early in the second half.
Bournemouth had only one goal in losses to Manchester United and West Ham United, and manager Eddie Howe is eager to use this performance as a springboard to break into the win column.
"You need to win to get that winning feeling," Howe explained to the team's official website. "Moments like this can be the starting point for a season, it has given us a good platform.
"Fair play to the players for their reaction to the equalizer. They showed great character to get a grip on the game again, we had a few chances (that) weren't clinical the way the came."
Dating back to last season, the Cherries have just one win in their last 10 league matches (1-1-8), scoring more than one goal just once in that span.
Wilson, who was injury-plagued for much of last season with Stoke City before signing on with Bournemouth this summer, is eager to build on his first match after missing seven months with a knee injury that caused him to miss the European Championship for Ireland.
"When I recovered with my knee I knew it was strong this time, I knew it was right," Wilson said. "I was working hard on it and I was gutted I missed the Euros, so I wanted to get it right this time.
"This is where I'm at and I'm concentrating on doing well at Bournemouth now."
The Cherries took four points from last season's two matches, including a 2-1 victory at Selhurst Park. Scott Dann and Marc Pugh traded goals seven minutes apart in the first half before Benik Afobe scored just before the hour for Bournemouth.