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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Crystal Palace v Arsenal: Hodgson and Wenger the undisputed elder statesmen of English football

Combined age of the two managers at Selhurst Park on Thursday will be the oldest in the English top flight since the Second World War.

Under Roy Hodgson's guidance and led on the pitch by Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace have been transformed. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Under Roy Hodgson's guidance and led on the pitch by Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace have been transformed. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

The age at which a man is currently eligible for a state pension in Britain is 65 years old. That’s three and a bit years ago for Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, some of whose followers began suggesting his long stay in his job reached its natural term even after he turned 60.

Retirement will be his decision and on Thursday night, against Crystal Palace, Wenger prepares to equal the record for managerial endurance in the Premier League taking charge of his 810th match, the same number as Alex Ferguson presided over.

Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, turned 70 in August, at which point he was out of full time work but keen to return to the sport that had taken him all over the world.

Hodgson’s last job was perhaps his most prestigious, although having ended his third major tournament in charge of England with a dispiriting defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, the departure was painful.

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Hodgson was not universally applauded by supporters of Palace when, in September, he was asked to become the club’s fourth different manager in 10 months. He would not have been universally advised to say yes either: Palace had just sacked Frank De Boer after the Dutchman’s two months in charge produced the worst start to a season in Premier League history.

Wenger and Hodgson will in South London on Thursday night form the most senior duel of managers in a top flight match since the Second World War, the first time since then two men 68 or over have been in opposition.

It is over 20 years since they first shared a touchline, and Hodgson might prize that memory, of his Blackburn Rovers winning at the old Highbury against the Arsenal Wenger was directing towards a league title.

Hodgson aims to put another spoke in the wheel on Thursday night, in charge of as robust a Palace as there has been in the last 18 months.

The team Hodgson inherited with no points and no goals after four games are now undefeated in their last six league outings. They are clear of the relegation zone. A win could thrust them up to 13th in the table.

Hodgson has had frustrations at Palace, but one benefit of experience is learning not to linger on the points that escaped: like Christian Benteke, who was not the designated spot-kick taker, missing a late penalty in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth.

Hodgson, rather, draws on the abundant evidence of a group players heeding and respecting his instructions, acknowledging that a manager previously sought out by Inter Milan – twice – and Liverpool, one who has managed four different national teams, knows how to drill effective systems.

There have been three clean sheets in the last six games and since the painful eight days in September when Palace, with Hodgson still settling in and surveying the squad’s shortcomings, lost 5-0 at Manchester City and then 4-0 at Manchester United, the only two losses have been the 1-0 defeats at Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur.

To describe Selhurst Park as a fortress would be to exaggerate. But the uniquely raucous atmosphere of the old-fashioned arena has begun to sound like an asset again, especially hostile for London derbies.

Chelsea were beaten there for Palace’s first Premier League points under their septuagenarian saviour, West Ham United held to a draw after the visitors established a 2-0 lead.

The points those days were sealed by Wilfried Zaha, whose four goals this season have reminded that, at his speedy, skilful best, he is one of English football’s most exciting, watchable talents.

Hodgson is a long-term admirer of Zaha. Five years ago, he gave him an England debut, and would regard it as an oversight by the English FA that four years later, Zaha, eligible for two countries, chose – as he still could, having only played in friendlies for England – to commit himself to representing Ivory Coast, the land of his birth.

Hodgson’s present concern is that another crossroads decision looms for Zaha. Clubs higher in the Premier League than Palace want him, Arsenal among them.

“If Wilf continues the way he is, the club will be faced with a situation where someone puts a lot of money on the table to try to prise him away,” Hodgson has predicted.

The manager’s task is to persuade Zaha that his current working environment, the club he has spent most of working life at, is the most stimulating at this stage in the 25-year-old striker’s career.