FOOTBALL: Armstrong lights up Palace

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The Independent Online

Wolverhampton Wanderers 1

Crystal Palace 4

Cup football continues to trick Crystal Palace into scoring feats that seem beyond them in League games. Last night's FA Cup replay rout of Wolves, which earned them a semi-final against Manchester United at Villa Park, took their goal tally to 25 in knock-out matches this season, against only 23 in the Premiership.

Moreover, each of their goals at Molineux was spectacular in its execution. Chris Armstrong, who missed the draw at Selhurst Park in the aftermath of his failed drug test, started and finished the spree. Iain Dowie and Darren Pitcher also contributed to Palace's flurry of three goals in 12 minutes before half-time, during which period David Kelly brought Wolves brief and illusory parity.

United, the holders, will start as favourites a week on Sunday, but Palace have happy memories of reaching Wembley at Liverpool's expense on the same ground five years ago, and the centre of United's defence will be weakened by the suspension of Steve Bruce, their captain.

Without detracting from the quality of a Palace performance, which put standards in the First Division into sharp perspective, Wolves were seriously under-strength. Exactly half of Graham Taylor's playing staff are injured, including five of the seven players he has bought. They badly missed the organising ability of John De Wolf and the distributive skills of Gordon Cowans.

It took only 21 minutes for Wolves' jinx to claim another victim, although Pitcher's reckless challenge rather than malign fate accounted for Tom Bennett's exit. Mr Willard, who later issued yellow cards as if on commission, neglected to caution the culprit, and for a time the tie threatened to descend into rancour.

A sudden outbreak of scoring brought it resoundingly back into repute. Palace took the lead on 33 minutes following an enormous throw-in by John Salako. Dowie beat Brian Law to flick the ball into the six-yard area, where Armstrong scored with a textbook overhead kick.

Kelly equalised two minutes later, diving low to head his first goal since the fifth-round winner against Leicester after Don Goodman's cross had deflected off Pitcher. But within three minutes Dowie was allowed time and space in which to chest the ball down following another projectile from Salako's hands. The former Southampton striker volleyed high into Mike Stowell's net.

Wolves were effectively finished when they conceded a third on the stroke of half-time. Mark Rankine's header dropped to the ubiquitous Pitcher, some 35 yards out, who was able to control the ball before dispatching a high, swirling volley into the top left corner of Stowell's goal.

Armstrong and Eric Young headed over from crosses by Salako, but with 22 minutes remaining Palace equalled their four-goal hauls in Coca-Cola Cup ties against Aston Villa and Manchester City. Armstrong, racing on to Iain Cox's pass down Wolves' left, cut in and turned Law every which way before beating Stowell for power and placement.

With their principal marksman smoking again, as it were, and Salako giving a fresh twist to the notion of throwing a match, United can afford to take nothing for granted.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Stowell; Rankine, Shirtliff, Law, Thompson; Goodman, Bennett (Emblen, 22), Venus, Dennison; Bull, Kelly. Substitutes not used: Wright, Jones (gk).

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Patterson, Shaw, Young, Coleman; Southgate, Cox (Newman, 78), Pitcher, Salako; Armstrong (Dyer, 88), Dowie. Substitute not used: Wilmot (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).