Sam Allardyce believes Crystal Palace’s improved performance in their 1-0 defeat of Middlesbrough was due to the fortnight’s break they have had from their relegation battle.
They demonstrated increased resilience and belief as Patrick van Aanholt’s first-half goal secured the three vital points that took them out of the drop zone and up to 17th in the Premier League.
Their elimination from the FA Cup earlier in the season gave them a break last weekend and two weeks to prepare for Middlesbrough.
Allardyce had previously overseen a disappointing and demanding run of fixtures since his appointment as manager in December, but their improvement at Selhurst Park suggested his influence is finally being felt.
The manager had previously been critical for his squad for not listening to his instructions, but he said: “Our two-week break has worked in our favour.
“We’ve worked very well with the players – it’s given them a lot of thinking time as well as a lot of good training. A lot of the new players can mingle with the lads already here.
“The performance in the first half warranted our victory, with an excellent goal from Patrick.
“(Mamadou Sakho produced a) very nice performance, in his first competitive Premier League game this season. He’s accepted he had to put that extra work in.
“His experience and composure… he looked very commanding in that position. I wasn’t sure he was going to last the whole game, but he did.
— Crystal Palace F.C. (@CPFC) February 25, 2017
“They made the right decisions more often than since I’ve been here, apart from (the win) at Bournemouth. That was encouraging for me.”
Allardyce also revealed that he has set his struggling team the target of catching 14th-placed Bournemouth, the highest of those clubs he believes are involved in the battle for survival.
“We get closer to Bournemouth,” said the 62-year-old. “I said to the lads: ‘It’s a seven-team Premier League for us – can we get as near to the top of those seven clubs?’
“We got a lot closer. Swansea got beat and Hull drew, and we gained some points. It’s moved us out of the bottom three and closer to Bournemouth.
“I was really pleased with the quality of the finish – it was a half-chance at best. When you get that sort of quality, that can turn the game, as it did.”
For all that Palace had improved, Middlesbrough, who remain 16th and like their hosts have 22 points, were particularly poor.
They have scored only 19 goals in 26 league fixtures this season, the poorest record in the Premier League, and were so ineffective that at half-time their manager Aitor Karanka substituted Alvaro Negredo and replaced him with the equally poor Rudy Gestede.
“In the first half we didn’t realise how important this game was,” said Karanka. “I don’t know why we didn’t approach the first half like the second, we knew this was a big game for us.
“The way we approached this game was completely different in the first and second half.
“I don’t want to say they didn’t show the right attitude or commitment. But we know what situation we are in and we have to stick together.”