Comment and Analysis @danielstorey85
Pulis' perfect plan
Liverpool v Chelsea will be billed as the title decider but nine days later the Reds face Crystal Palace. They're undergoing a Pulis revolution, as Roberto Martinez will tell you. Daniel Storey leads the applause...
Last Updated: 17/04/14 10:06am
Following Liverpool's weekend victory over Manchester City, conventional wisdom suggests that the Reds' highest hurdle to jump will be the visit of Chelsea to Anfield on April 27, particularly given City's sloppy slip-up at home to Sunderland. Beat Jose Mourinho's side and that's the title, right?
Whilst it may indeed prove to be that simple, and Brendan Rodgers' insistence on a one-game-at-a-time mentality should guard against any complacency, Liverpool must also be at their best for a trip to Selhurst Park nine days later. The Eagles are flying.
In the build-up to his side's fixture against Palace, Everton manager Roberto Martinez spoke of the importance of his side's winning mentality. "You only decide games on technical, tactical and physical aspects when they don't mean much," Martinez said. "When there is a real meaning in every point that you play for, psychologically you need to be very strong, and probably that's a big advantage that we have. The team is focused, the football club is focused and we are very much all together fighting for the same aim. Psychologically we've got that winning mentality that you need."
Whilst such bravado was fully justified after seven consecutive league victories, this "winning mentality" came emphatically unstuck against a Palace side sculpted by Tony Pulis in his own image - grisly, resolute and refusing to sit down.
The statistics are extraordinary. Since Pulis was appointed Palace have taken 36 points from 23 matches, putting them eighth in the form table over that period. Over the course of a season, that form would equal a total of 59 points, just two fewer than Liverpool managed last season. Palace now sit just one place and three points from the top half, an unthinkable resurgence since the Welshman arrived in South London with a reputation to restore. A restoration completed in emphatic fashion.
However, despite Palace's progression under Pulis, the victory at Goodison Park was still a huge step up (and therefore surprise). Before Wednesday, Palace's eleven games against top seven sides had returned just four points and three goals, and their away record has been fairly rotten all season - no points had been taken on the road against a single side outside the bottom eight before the trip to Everton.
Pulis' success has been founded on solidity. Since he joined the club only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals than Palace's 20 in 23 matches - a remarkable statistic. But the most positive aspect of the victory over Everton is that Palace played with an added attacking fluidity often lacking away from home even during the Pulis era. They have now scored as many away league goals in their last 180 minutes as in the rest of the season combined. The most striking thing is that, despite safety being assured, Palace are still improving.
Pulis is content to allow the opposition to have the majority of possession (Palace won with just 31% of the ball at Goodison), but in Yannick Bolasie he has a player who demonstrated more invention and creativity against Everton than any of the home side's attacking midfielders, his pace constantly threatening on the counter. The Congo international ghosted past a limp challenge from Leighton Baines to allow Jason Puncheon to score his fourth goal in three games - there are few players more improved this season in the Premier League than the former Southampton man.
Bolasie also played a part in Palace's second, his corner headed home by Scott Dann, and the winger was a constant threat to Everton's usually impressive full-backs, switching sides with Puncheon in order to keep both Baines and Seamus Coleman busy. Even in injury-time, with backs against the wall, Bolasie took the ball on the counter and surged past Sylvain Distin, winning a corner to the vocal relief of the away support. It typified his man-of-the-match performance.
For Everton, the top four dreams that seemed so realistic in the confident and buoyant air of the home support before the game have been eradicated in 90 careless minutes. Seventeen chances were created but just five hit the target, and Martinez must be cursing the tight muscles of James McCarthy that caused him to start on the bench. Ross Barkley deputised adequately, but is so much more effective when allowed to roam further forward, and an under-par Gareth Barry suffered without McCarthy's company.
That said, to dwell too much on Everton's inadequacies would do a disservice to another phenomenal achievement from Pulis and Palace - to call it a miracle would be to crudely ignore the determination, passion and commitment the manager demands from his players, and the quality displayed against Everton.
On Wednesday, Palace damaged the hopes of one Merseyside club. On May 5th, they will get the chance to the same to the other - Liverpool must take added care against the growing Pulis revolution.