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Crystal Palace have survived the biggest relegation waves

Roy Hodgson, the Crystal Palace manager and the Premier League's resident Andy Dufresne, has been busy with his rockhammer.

Three months on from Hodgson's arrival, Palace are now free of their basement prison, with Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Watford lifting them above Swansea, West Ham and West Bromwich Albion. It has been an agonising crawl through the darkness, with all sorts of horrors encountered along the way. But now - finally - light.

Palace were hopeless for 88 minutes at Selhurst Park, showing little understanding of how to break through their opponents and looking perilously fragile throughout. Daryl Janmaat gave the visitors the lead inside three minutes and Richarlison, Troy Deeney, and Richarlison again could and should have added to that score. Nevertheless, Bakary Sako’s bundled equaliser and, minutes later, James McArthur’s carved winner provided a startling reversal.

It’s difficult to know how to treat that kind of result. On the one hand, Palace exhibited all of their familiar weaknesses and showed no tangible evidence of improvement. Their full-backs, Jeffrey Schlupp and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, both looked regularly helpless and were to blame for exposing their centre-halves to wave after wave of Watford attack.

Similarly, the volume of errors which fell out of the home team was alarming. Yohan Cabaye trod on the ball in the first half, almost gifting Deeney a goal, and Palace as a whole looked like a portrait of shattered self-belief. Simple passes were mislaid, the visitors were regularly allowed free passage up the field while facing minimal pressure, and the attacking threat was entirely extinguished by an apparent fear of responsibility.

Really, Palace were that bad.

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Hodgson cut a passive figure on the touchline. There was no shouting or balling and he wore the kind of submissive expression throughout which suggested - understandably - that any coach would struggle to penetrate the dense fog of self-pity on the pitch.

This, remember, is a team who likely feel slightly cursed. Three days on from the Christian Benteke incident against Bournemouth, an act of preposterous self-sabotage, there was certainly a sense of doom in the air. The crowd grew more mutinous with every mis-step and shared their anger equally between referee Lee Mason and their own players. The team, clearly scared of expression and the cat-calls that it might bring, seemed content to shuffle the ball around, hoping Wilfried Zaha would do something.

And eventually he did. Minutes after Tom Cleverley had received a second yellow card for a cynical lunge, Zaha - who himself had been desperately disappointing - scythed infield and drilled a shot on goal. Heurelho Gomes saved and saved again, but the move ended with Sako somersaulting towards his own fans in glee and the ball in the net.

No rhyme, no reason, just one of those moments that football can occasionally throw up. When, seconds later, McArthur arrived late in the box to put away Zaha’s fine cut-back, the local mood was almost disbelieving. Many supporters will tell you that the most satisfying wins are always those which aren’t really deserved. This, then, must have been almost impossibly gratifying.

Hodgson was honest post-game. He conceded that Watford had been the better side, but saluted his players’ character. Better, he said, to have played poorly and lost than to have reproduced the kind of encouraging but flawed effort that allowed Bournemouth to steal a point last weekend.

And, really, this is the interesting thing about teams threatened by relegation: trite observation though it may be, they depend on the bounce of the ball. Had Cleverley not been sent off on Tuesday night and had Gomes parried Zaha’s shot away at a slightly different angle, Palace would have spent the rest of the week being flogged for their cowardice. Rightly, too. They played with no originality or intent and were shockingly oblivious to almost all of Watford’s known threats. They deserved nothing and got everything.

When a new manager arrives at a listing club, his impact is almost always assessed in terms of his tactical effect. How can he stiffen that limp defence? Can he embolden that reticent forward? Realistically, though, many of those sorts of teams are found in a helpless state; they’re generally too fearful to be receptive. Players can be encouraged to work hard and throw themselves in front of goal-bound shots, but until they’re infused by confidence it’s very difficult for better habits to take seed.

It’s a tipping point which should have a name. Whatever that may be, it’s tempting to believe that Palace reached it this week. They’ve survived the hardship and now, settled by relief, can start to be properly led.

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