The Frenchman will look to his two attackers to carry the can in the FA Cup semi-final meeting with Thomas Tuchel’s troops
Crystal Palace’s FA Cup journey could have been over before it even began, but for Michael Olise whose strong second-half showing at Millwall prevented a Third Round exit for Patrick Vieira’s men.
The Eagles had fallen behind to an early Benik Afobe strike at The Den, making their South London visitors sweat in the opening 45 minutes with the raucous support behind them.
“It was a hostile atmosphere, but that made it even more exciting,” Vieira recollects, “atmospheres like that drive the players.
We didn’t start the game well, and going a goal down meant we had to show character to fight back in the tie.
“This is how we build team spirit, that first game showed how much we wanted to succeed in the competition.”
With Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew away on Africa Cup of Nations duty with the Ivory Coast and Ghana respectively, Olise stepped up and then scored a brilliant equaliser and set up the away side’s winning goal.
The first was a thing of beauty and largely the youngster’s habitual skill: chopping into his stronger left foot and shooting at goal or crossing into the box.
Millwall defenders knew what Olise was going to do, yet they could not stop him from scoring two minutes after the restart and setting up Jean-Philippe Mateta for what turned out to be the winning goal in the 58th minute.
In 13 second-half minutes, Palace’s whizz-kid had near singlehandedly turned the London derby on its head for a 2-1 success and neither the 20-year-old nor Palace have looked back since. Further victories against Hartlepool United, Stoke City and Everton have put the Eagles one game away from a third FA Cup final in their history.
For Palace fans, there has to be a sense of relief at the potential opposition in this year’s final if they defeat Chelsea on Sunday. While the strength of this Liverpool iteration will cripple many, the absence of Manchester United will relax a fanbase that have had the Red Devils twice steal their dream of a maiden title in the illustrious competition.
Twice have the South London outfit found themselves in the FA Cup decider only to be beaten by the Manchester giants on both occasions. They do not make it to the last four often — only reaching this point three times in their history — but United have put paid to their ambition of claiming that elusive FA Cup crown—with a 1995 semi-final exit at the hands of the giants either side two final losses in 1990 and 2016.
Wilfried Zaha is one of four Palace survivors from that 2015/16 extra-time loss against Louis van Gaal’s side where the London outfit were only nine minutes away from glory before Juan Mata pegged them back in the 81st minute.
Against his old club, that loss must have rankled. The Ivory Coast winger is still without a major club honour, albeit having won the Championship Playoff final and Community Shield in 2013 with Palace and Manchester United respectively.
The full-blooded winger has not matched Olise’s decisive quality in this year’s competition — partly due to Afcon participation at the start of the year — but both players turned it on in the quarter-final success over Everton, contributing to three goals in a 4-0 rout of Everton.
Vieira does not feel the outcome fairly reflected what was largely an even contest on the balance of play, but his team find themselves in the last four of a competition he won five times as a player with Arsenal.
n truth, Palace’s steady growth under the Frenchman this term means they are the one side outside the Premier League’s big three — Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea — that neutrals would have picked for a semi-final berth, and the developing side have not disappointed.
While they have been beaten twice by Thomas Tuchel’s team this season, the 1-0 defeat in February was a closer contest than that 3-0 dismantling at Stamford Bridge on the opening gameweek of the season.
The continued development in the new regime and motivation to be third-time lucky against their cross-town rivals mean observers are backing the Eagles to upset a Chelsea side that played an intense and exhausting 120 minutes against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
As he is inclined to do, Vieira has played down the possibility of two hours of football in mid-week undermining the Blues’ prospects of making it to back-to-back FA Cup finals but made a stirring war cry in the build-up to Sunday’s meeting.
“I will love us to play with a lot of enthusiasm, to be free in our minds and to enjoy the moment,” the Frenchman told the media this week.
“Against Chelsea, we must fight, work hard, work well, but we must play as well. Because we will have possession and when we have possession we have to play forward and want to create chances and want to score goals.
“We have to do it together.”
The challenge has been issued, and it will be fascinating to see whether Zaha and the returning Olise pick up the gauntlet and take Palace ever closer to the club’s first-ever FA Cup crown.