15:00 KO (BST); Saturday 12th August; Selhurst Park (London, England)
David Wagner has masterminded a dramatic rise, taking the Terriers from 19th position to promotion play-off winners during his first full year in charge at the West Yorkshire club. It’s been 45 years since Huddersfield Town last competed in top-flight football, however, the long wait is finally over and a new era in their history is about to begin.
While many people are making them favourites to finish bottom of the league this year, this should spur the Terriers on and allow them to play without the pressure which could hinder their rivals.
Similar to last year in the Championship, it could also make them a neutral fan-favourite team and empower them with an underdog status.
Crystal Palace suffered a joint-highest number of home defeats in the league last season and Frank de Boer has been handed a deceptively tricky fixture for his first game in charge at his new club. With much to prove following a disastrous spell at Inter Milan, de Boer will look to build on Palace’s disappointing performance last season with the addition of only one permanent signing.
While Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah (reportedly) will add energy and enthusiasm to the side, it could also provide a lack of experience which exposes a soft underbelly to the Eagles aspirations.
Last Time Out
CRYSTAL PALACE 1 – 1 Schalke 04 (Friendly)
After a pre-season of mixed fortunes, it was a less than convincing display from Palace which saw them take a hard-earned draw from a strong German opponent.
It was Schalke’s inability to convert their chances which helped keep Palace within touching distance during a largely forgettable first-half, although Andros Townsend did provide a few moments of magic to raise the spirits of the home crowd in attendance.
Wilfried Zaha also showed glimpses of his abilities down the wing, but the biggest talking point amongst Palace fans was the second consecutive start for Jason Lokilo. The 18-year-old attacker has been used as a support striker to Christian Benteke after a chance inclusion in an early season training session.
De Boer’s reputation for developing promising young talents coupled with some mature performances by Lokilo have led many fans to believe that he could become a more permanent fixture in the side this season.
HUDDERSFIELD 2 – 2 Torino (Friendly)
In true Terrier-like fashion, Huddersfield displayed grit and determination in this game to twice pull level with their opponents after falling behind.
It proved to be a rigorous workout for the newly promoted English side and should greatly help both the players and the management assess the current fitness levels in the camp ahead of the opening weekend of Premiership football.
Loose defending was to blame for both of the goals which Huddersfield conceded, first when Simone Edera was allowed time and space on the edge of the box, then when Chukwuma Obi was gifted a free header from a corner.
Whilst this is an area which Huddersfield will need to greatly improve upon during the coming season, their attacking play shows great promise. Controlled build-up play crafted Elias Kachunga’s goal while Steve Mounié scored his fourth pre-season goal since his summer arrival which adds a definite cutting edge to the Terriers prospects.
Crystal Palace Lineup
Yohan Cabaye (ankle), James McArthur (knock) and Pape Souaré (thigh) are the only doubts for new manager De Boer. Although all three players are now back in full training, they expected to start from the bench rather than be pushing for a place in the first team.
Elsewhere, the imminent arrival of Timothy Fosu-Mensah on loan from Manchester United (pending official confirmation) could see the versatile youngster given a starting berth. However, it’s expected he will be afforded more time to familiarise himself with his new teammates before joining the action, although Scott Dann’s recent form suggests he may get a start sooner rather than later.
With almost a full squad to select from, only midfielder Jonathan Hogg and striker Nahki Wells will be unavailable for the Terriers’ first game back in the top division due to ankle injuries.
Key Battle: Wilfried Zaha vs Elias Kachunga
Both sides are expected to throw emphasis on their attack which suggests that their respective star wingers will provide the key to unlocking this game for their team.
Zaha has been likened by his new manager to Neymar due to his combination of skill and speed. While this comparison can be subjectively argued, there’s no doubting the midfielder’s importance to his team and despite only contributing seven goals, his nine assists underline his influence. This is highly likely to increase further still under de Boer, who’s 3-4-3 style of play will look to make the most of his natural wingers.
Although Huddersfield’s record signing Steve Mounié has already claimed four goals during the pre-season and looks sure to be the Terriers main goal threat, Elias Kachunga could well prove to be a more valuable player for Huddersfield.
Last season’s top scorer and an integral part of Wagner’s plans, Kachunga has recently signed a permanent contract in a deal worth £1.1m after spending last season on loan from FC Ingolstadt 04. This season, however, could see the 24-year-old rise to prominence in the league and he could easily be one of the few bargains to come out of a summer of crazy transfers.
The Ajax model
As the embodiment of the Ajax prototype, de Boer is set to convert Palace’s playing style to reflect his own deeply-held footballing philosophies. This includes a more technical passing style which will see them focus on playing the ball along the ground with the ultimate aim of controlling possession.
Employing a formation which uses three central defenders, “total football” is a more attack-minded brand of football that hopes to capitalise on Palace’s attacking midfielders, however, it will be a risky strategy following Alan Pardew’s recent failure at creating an effective attacking brand of football with largely the same set of players.
Whether de Boer is able to impart his wisdom to his new squad successfully and whether his players are good enough to carry out this style of play are just two answers which will slowly begin to reveal themselves in the coming weeks.
Much of this will also rely on whether Benteke is able to fit into the new system at Palace. Without any other valid striking options to lead the line presently at the club, it’s a bold move to implement a system that ignores their main forward’s greatest attribute.
The fame game
With the big lights of the Premier League comes extra and often unwanted attention on team performances. For Wagner, there will surely be comparisons drawn with Jurgen Klopp. After playing together in the 1990s, he then followed his compatriot to Borussia Dortmund to began his managerial career alongside his old friend.
For the players, many of them will be unused to the high level of public scrutiny they could come to face. Although it may seem like a fun ride to begin, the pressure of this has an unnerving effect on some individuals and the tight-knit team spirit which carried them through last season is likely to face a few hurdles during a long Premier League campaign.
With this increase in intensity around the club, it will be interesting to see how Wagner and his squad handle the trappings of fame as well as their ability to handle the challenge posed by an increased quality in opposition teams.
Aaron Mooy grabbed many of the headlines during the summer following his permanent switch from Manchester City, but his midfield partner could well steal some of his limelight during the opening weeks. Philip Billing is adept at carrying the ball forward from deep and has a fine array of passing within his arsenal.
At only 21-years-old, he already has a strong presence in the centre of the pitch, playing with a high level of confidence and awareness.
While the Danish midfielder has an abundance of talent at his disposal, Wagner has also recently admitted that the youngster has a habit of disappearing from games when the odds are stacked against them.
This flaw in his mentality is likely to be exposed at some point during this season as the Terriers will surely reach points when they’re being overwhelmed by top-class teams. How Billing and his team-mates handle this pressure will be a compelling side-note in the Terriers’ season.
PREDICTION: Crystal Palace 2 – 2 Huddersfield Town
It’s Total Football vs gegenpressing in the opening weekend of the Premier League and this is likely to be a game which boasts plenty of excitement. While neither team look able to defend to the very highest of standards, a fast flowing game should be in the offing.
While this game may not provide a benchmark of what is to come in the season ahead, rather than show which side has prepared better during the close season, I think it will end with honours even and could be the start of a long season for both clubs.
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