Survival specialist Allardyce making his mark at Palace

FILE- In this Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017 file photo, Crystal Palace team manager Sam Allardyce during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace at the Emirates stadium in London. Allardyce is starting to turn around the fortunes of Premier League struggler Crystal Palace. The team has won its last three matches and has climbed four points clear of the relegation zone. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

MANCHESTER, England — With his brief and humiliating experience as coach of England's national team behind him, Sam Allardyce is back on familiar ground in the Premier League and doing what he does best: Turning around the fortunes of a struggling team.

"Big Sam," as he is known in soccer circles, is a master at keeping clubs in the Premier League, so it was no surprise that Crystal Palace turned to him late last year as the south London club plunged toward the relegation zone.

He made a slow start to life at Palace, but results over the last month have been typical of Allardyce: Three games, three gritty performances, three clean sheets and — most importantly — three wins.

Palace has pulled four points clear of the bottom three.

Another team saved by Allardyce? Not quite, but he certainly has Palace — the worst performing team in all four professional leagues of English soccer in 2016 — heading in the right direction.

The pragmatic, no-nonsense manager has done that by getting back to basics, starting at the back where Palace was extremely shaky under previous manager Alan Pardew.

Fortunately, Allardyce had a transfer window to shake up the squad and two signings are starting to prove their worth.

France center back Mamadou Sakho was brought in on loan from Liverpool, where he was out of the team because of fitness issues and after getting a provisional ban for a failed doping test that was later dismissed by UEFA. Sakho has slotted into a newly formed five-man defense and Palace hasn't conceded a goal with him in the team.

Luka Milivojevic, a holding midfielder from Serbia, joined from Olympiakos and has been stationed in front of the defense for the wins over Middlesbrough (1-0), West Bromwich Albion (2-0) and Watford (1-0), offering great protection.

It hasn't been pretty but Palace is grinding out crucial points.

The hard work might just be starting, though.

On Saturday, Palace plays at first-place Chelsea in the first game of a difficult 10-match run-in in the Premier League that includes trips to Southampton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United as well as home games against Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham.

That four-point cushion could come in very handy for Palace, which is 16th in the 20-team league.

Allardyce is looking to rebuild his reputation that was damaged by an ill-fated 67-day spell in charge of England, which ended in September when he was forced out because of unguarded comments he made to undercover reporters posing as businessmen.

His last firefighting role in the Premier League was at Sunderland, which he joined in October 2015 when the team was next-to-last in the league and preserved its place in the top flight. Having never been relegated from the Premier League as a manager, he has also established Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham as top-flight teams during his 26 years in management.

Here are other things to look out for this weekend:

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ARSENAL'S FUTURE

The future of manager Arsene Wenger and forward Alexis Sanchez are up in the air and Arsenal is struggling for form on the field.

Arsenal's only wins in eight games since January have been against Premier League struggler Hull and non-league teams Sutton and Lincoln in the FA Cup.

The team has dropped to sixth in the league, six points behind fourth-place Liverpool, which occupies the final Champions League qualification spot. Arsenal has qualified for the Champions League every year since 1998.

With his latest deal due to expire at the end of this season, Wenger gave no new hints about his future plans Thursday, saying: "It's a subject that at the moment is not sorted completely out."

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MERSEYSIDE DEBY

Liverpool has established a reputation under manager Juergen Klopp for playing well against the league's top sides and being less fluent against the rest.

So where does Everton fit in these days?

Everton has climbed to seventh in the standings after seven wins in its last 10 games and even has an outside shot at Champions League qualification.

Liverpool hasn't lost any of its last 13 Merseyside derbies since a 2-0 win for Everton in October 2010.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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