If Crystal Palace gave their rivals in the battle for Premier League survival a seven-game headstart, then Bakary Sako is showing that even in a team that took its time to get going there is room for late bloomers.
Sako scored his second goal in five days to secure victory and pull Crystal Palace into mid-table, continuing his midwinter form that has been peak rather than the usual bleak.
Alan Pardew, during his time as Palace boss, spoke of trying to harness the ‘chaos’ that Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie could create in opposing defences and Roy Hodgson has cooked up something similar, but with 50% extra havoc.
Roughly forming a front three today; Zaha, Christian Benteke and the in-form Sako battered, twisted and pulled Burnley’s defence in different directions, showing that even the best-coached defences struggle when faced with an attack as unpredictable and explosive as a box of fireworks left out in the sun.
Zaha provides the decisive, game-breaking moments. The best dribbler in the league, his ability to carry the ball at pace and turn defenders means he requires opponents to gameplan and double-team him. The tackles are often brutal, the reaction often fiery but the winner is usually the Ivorian.
Benteke is the central pillar whose aerial ability occupies defenders, often scaring them senseless, and Sako is kind of a cross between the previous two who profits from the spaces they leave. The former Wolves winger is enjoying an incredible purple patch of form under Hodgson.
Squatter than Benteke but thicker than Zaha, Sako appears, at times, to not even know what he is going to do next but so often recently it has resulted in something positive and again today it was a goal, as it had been on Monday night and as it had been whenever he was given the opportunity in December.
Saturday’s Premier League matches in pictures
That goal from the unpredictable Sako settled down a first half that had been predictably scrappy and unappealing, the winger squeezing a low shot through some defenders from a tight angle. It was a goal that is always a danger for the Clarets, whose defensive success is based on a deep, compact line that will block shots endlessly. This one snuck through, and when you’re that close to goal there is little that can stop it.
Palace should have doubled that within a minute or so, Zaha’s brilliant work forcing an astounding last-gasp block from Charlie Taylor when James McArthur – excellent all afternoon – appeared certain to score.
Burnley had strong spells but when Palace broke there was a feeling of unpredictability and danger every time. Sako could and should have had a second with a rasping volley that he took a sledgehammer to when a tap with a pocket-sized hammer might have made it 2-0.
Burnley were improved by the introduction of loan signing Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, who looked almost out of place simply because he was willing to think outside the box and try to create.
It is difficult to criticise Burnley given the incredible job Sean Dyche has done with scant resources but their lack of offensive spark is, well, offensive, and for all N’Koudou’s trickery there were few good chances created and none converted as Palace saw out a victory that drags them to vertigo-inducing heights, within touching distance of the top half.