STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Crystal Palace will win their battle for Premier League survival, according to their former midfielder Aki Riihilahti, whose combative performances made him a cult hero for the club.
Palace, who have been transformed since the arrival of manager Sam Allardyce in December, host relegation rivals Hull City on Sunday.
They need a point to guarantee their survival, and 40-year-old Finn Riihilahti, who played for Palace for five years from 2001, has given them a strong vote of confidence.
“I think they will win. As a fan, I‘m very nervous but as a professional involved in football, looking at it objectively, they are a better team than Hull,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview from his home in Helsinki.
“I like the way the team has been set up recently, it looks nothing like it did at the start of the season. Crystal Palace are a team that belong in the Premier League.”
Riihilahti’s Palace career was spent mostly outside the top flight. His Palace side narrowly escaped relegation to the third tier in 2001, but experienced the joy of reaching the Premier League via the playoffs three seasons later.
Their spell among the elite was short-lived, however, with a painful relegation following after just one season in the top flight.
“In the season we got relegated there was a run of about 10 games where the results just weren’t good enough. In situations like that it’s often down to mental strength and character,” said the former Finland international, who is now CEO of Finnish top-flight side HJK Helsinki.
“When I experienced relegation, I thought to myself about what my part in it was, and what I could do to make up for it. The only one you can’t lie to is the one looking back at you in the mirror.”
Riihilahti said that the view of some fans that modern footballers were mercenaries, who care more about making money for themselves than succeeding with their clubs was inaccurate.
“Players are very good at, shall we say, outsourcing responsibility for things, but you have to remember that they are winners,” he said.
“We need to understand the feelings of the fans and the club and look after them, but on the other side we also need to take care of the players. No-one wants to lose,” he said.
Riihilahti’s selfless performances as a hard-running, tough-tackling defensive midfielder won him a special place in the hearts of supporters at Selhurst Park, and he remains a huge fan of the club.
He believes Palace, who have spent the last three seasons in the Premier League after eight in the second tier, are capable of much more than bouncing between England’s top two divisions.
“Crystal Palace belong in the Premier League, but I think they need to look at the strategy and the structure. It’s not enough to be battling relegation every year,” he said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Toby Davis