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Plenty of positives
SWINDON Town may have fallen to defeat in their final pre-season examination, but there were plenty of high marks to be handed out to the Robins players on their return to action at the County Ground.
Against a strong Crystal Palace line-up, littered with explosive, talented youngsters and wily campaigners, Swindon set up shop to thrill and they certainly proved that they have the ability to make the grade in League One this term.
Their Championship opponents were left chasing shadows for several first-half minutes and led at the break only because of Jermaine Easter’s debatable penalty.
Andy Williams twice hit the crossbar for Town in those opening 45 minutes, while three other gilt-edged chances also came and went as the hosts entertained the SN1 crowd.
After the interval Swindon’s play became disjointed and creativity made way for passivity as Palace were allowed more time to dictate play in the centre of the park.
But there was enough in the early exchanges to suggest that the Robins are still improving as the new season approaches.
Town started well and, after Matt Ritchie ballooned a wild effort well over the crossbar, the hosts came within a whisker of taking the lead.
Gary Roberts’ low cross found the outstretched leg of Williams and only a brilliant reaction saved from Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni prevented the former Yeovil man from putting the Robins ahead.
In the initial exchanges it was Swindon who looked like the Championship side, as they came again and again at Palace with a series of smart, smooth, slick passages of on-the-floor football.
Roberts’ dangerous cross was cleared from underneath his own crossbar by Paddy McCarthy before Ritchie’s follow-up shot was blocked en route to goal by Dean Moxey.
But Palace were always likely to be dangerous when they finally got hold of the ball, and they proved exactly that after 10 minutes.
Wilfred Zaha, the youngster so admired by many clubs in the Premier League, was the instigator, producing a sensational through ball to send Glen Murray clear of the Swindon defence.
Murray danced past Wes Foderingham and went to ground, referee Simon Hooper pointed to the spot and Easter’s bullet penalty sent the Town stopper the wrong way.
That the goal came against the run of play showed just how impressively Swindon had opened up and quickly the tide turned back towards the Stratton Bank, where Town resumed their assault on the Palace defence.
Williams has made a habit of hitting the woodwork of late, with two audacious attempts at Supermarine clattering into the crossbar, and he increased his tally to four in two games in the 12th minute.
Played through nicely by Roberts, the forward did well to control his strike from a bouncing ball but, despite beating Speroni, the ball would not nestle in the back of the net.
Swindon impressed in midfield throughout the opening period, with Alan Navarro and Tommy Miller putting in their best collective shift since their arrivals at the County Ground this summer.
Navarro in particular, barking orders like a no-nonsense sergeant major, began to give hints as to what he might add to the team over the coming months.
Linking neatly with Ritchie and Roberts on either wing and sitting deep to protect Alan McCormack and Troy Archibald-Henville, he allowed Miller to roam further forward and be the focal point of several Town attacks.
One such instance, after 14 minutes, resulted in Miller firing at Speroni from distance while it was Navarro who started the move that ended with Williams firing over on the half-hour.
However, for all of Swindon’s positive intent up front, there remained a nagging fragility at the back and a moment of hesitancy eight minutes before the break almost cost Town a second goal.
Zaha was the architect once again, the mercurial winger teasing the Robins defence down the left before sliding in Easter.
The striker looked poise to double his own and his team’s tally for the evening, but Foderingham got down well to stick out a leg and knock the ball to safety.
After the break both sides struggled to settle into a rhythm early on.
Foderingham denied Jedinak with a decent low save from a narrow angle before Ritchie burst the momentary lull in the action with a stinging drive from 20 yards which was beaten somewhat tentatively to safety by substitute keeper Lewis Price.
Price had to be on hand with 20 minutes remaining to maintain the visitors’ clean sheet, as he produced a superb save to deny Williams after he had been put through by a neat pass from Roberts.
At the other end, despite a series of substitutions, Palace remained a major threat.
Foderingham had to get quickly across to his right to push Jose Baxter’s free-kick out for a corner after Archibald-Henville got himself in a mess before Archibald-Henville made amends for his error by nodding Paddy McCarthy’s goalbound header off the line.
Substitute Baxter seemed intent on finding the net following his second half and, with eight minutes remaining, he latched onto a mistake by McCormack to fizz a swinging attempt marginally wide of the Town goal.
Late on Aden Flint almost levelled but his flick from Luke Rooney’s free-kick was hacked off the line to safety by a Palace defender.
Di Canio reflected on two contrasting halves of football from a Town point of view.
He said: “I’m sure against Brighton we will be very good but my question is: Do we have to ask the referee to keep going for 90 minutes in a row and not give us the 15 minutes rest because that is the problem at the moment. I don’t know why.
“I have to ask why it happens in the second half, from the first kick not after 20 minutes which I can understand because legs are tired.
“I’m sure we have the energy to go again physically but mentally I have to work. It is difficult to change that so they have to work, look in a mirror and say ‘even if we feel a bit tired, 15 minutes is enough to recover’.
“It’s in the brain and otherwise we don’t build a winning mentality. League One is a tough league and we have to build this mentality.
“I’m sure we’re going to be ready for the league competition, I’m absolutely sure, but we have to work.
“The first 25 minutes made me think very positively that we can face Brighton without any fear.”