Crystal Palace is Quietly Making a Run for Europe. What Could Go Wrong?

With the first group of matches in for the Premier League’s Project Restart, fans will surely keep their eyes peeled on three things. The first is Liverpool, who are only a few points out of clinching the league title, and have a chance at equaling or matching the 100-point mark set by Manchester City in 2018. The second would be the relegation battle, with places 16 through 19 only separated by two points. And the third, or course, would be the race for Europe.

               As of matches through June 21st, Manchester United and Wolves are tied for 5th with 46 points, with United holding the advantage on goals. Sheffield and Tottenham currently occupy the next two sports. And sitting in 9th with 42 points, we find Crystal Palace.

               Crystal Palace has been a pretty stable club in the standings during their current run in the Premier League. In their last six seasons they have never finished higher than 10th, but no worse than 15th. Prior to this their last four spells in the Premiership, including its inaugural season, have all ended in relegation. Their last promotion from the Championship came in about as tough a way as possible: Winning the playoff final by a clean sheet and a goal in extra time.

               And this season was lining up to be another mediocre year for the Eagles. After a draw at Southampton, Crystal Palace had climbed back into 9th place. Now, in doing some research for this, I learned that Palace hasn’t been a top-9 team in the second half since the 2015-16 season, They entered the new year in 5th place, only to reel off five straight losses en route to a 15th-place finish. And, sure enough, that draw at Southampton was the first of four consecutive draws, which would be followed by three straight losses. All of a sudden, instead of knocking on Europe’s door, Palace was in 14th and on the brink of collapse.

               However, the Eagles stopped the skid by picking up a 1-0 win over Newcastle. Then they did it again at Brighton, and again over Watford. Three straight 1-0 victories brought them back into 11th position, but all momentum was halted as COVID-19 forced the league to pause its season.

               Which brings us to here. In their first game back after the pause, Crystal Palace was able to manage a 2-0 win at Bournemouth, pushing them past Arsenal and Burnley into 9th. They are tied with Tottenham on points, but behind on goals. They are two points behind Sheffield, and a mere four points out of 5th. So with all the momentum behind the Eagles, what could stop them from leaping into Europe?

               Well, a lot actually. For starters, their schedule stiffens up significantly. Trips to Liverpool, Leicester and Wolves all remain, along with hosting Tottenham and Man United. They still have some games against bottom-half teams, but they will need to find wins over the top half if they want to stay in contention. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, however, Palace has less than a 1% chance of qualifying for Champions League, and estimates that they will only get eight points out of their final eight games.

               But those same projections also give Palace a 19% of finishing in the top eight. A tall task, but not an impossible one. FiveThirtyEight projects 8th place to finish with 52 points, meaning Palace would need to clear 53 in order to make up for their goal difference. If they can manage to sweep up wins over Burnley and Aston Villa, then it’s possible that they would only need to win two of their other six games to make the top eight. That could make for an epic showdown on the final matchday, as Crystal Palace would play host to Tottenham, the team currently above them on the table.

               Crystal Palace has never qualified for the Champions League or Europa League. They have never won an FA or EFL Cup. They have never finished above 10th in the Premier League. But in what has already been a very wild year, who’s to say what’s possible and what’s not.

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