Football: Blades on knife-edge

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Sheffield United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Crystal Palace. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

A WEEK in which Sheffield United overcame both Blackburn Rovers and the Football Association to earn the right to play at Wembley ended with them stumbling in their quest for a more important prize - the right to continue playing in the Premier League.

Palace were reduced to 10 men after 39 minutes when Chris Armstrong was sent off, but eased their own relegation worries by holding off a United team whose manager, Dave Bassett, had told them they were playing for their places in the FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. On this evidence, the suspended Brian Deane and those on the Blades' lengthy injury list still have the Twin Towers firmly in their sights.

Two sides addicted to the long- ball game and its antidote, the offside trap, produced a frustrating encounter frequently compressed into the middle third of the field and punctuated by the referee's whistle. But if the match lacked finesse, it was not without incident.

For Palace, Armstrong saw his cross roll tantalisingly across an open goal and Simon Osborn forced Alan Kelly to touch over his curling cross. Brian Gayle, United's captain, headed against the post and Dane Whitehouse had the ball in the net, but was ruled offside.

Then Armstrong fouled Paul Beesley, disputed the referee's decision, and was dismissed. That may not end his punishment, either, as the police took statements from the crowd about a gesture he made as he left the field.

But within minutes Palace had stolen the winner. Andy Thorn, back after injury, took a free-kick which was nodded back by Geoff Thomas for Chris Coleman, falling backwards, to deflect into the net.

They might have gone further ahead when Eddie McGoldrick ran at the heart of the defence and forced Kelly to palm over again. But United's numerical superiority inevitably began to tell. Mitch Ward, Whitehouse and Adrian Littlejohn all had chances to force in a loose ball before Nigel Martyn turned it behind. The goalkeeper then saved acrobatically from Tom Cowan, and Alan Cork's header came back off the crossbar. But the equaliser would not come, and the nightmare of relegation now looms as large as that dream semi-final.

Sheffield United: A Kelly; T Cowan, D Whitehouse, P Beesley (C Bradshaw, 69 min), B Gayle, J Pemberton, A Littlejohn, C Hartfield (J Hoyland, 62 min), P Rogers, A Cork, M Ward. Sub not used: P Kite (gk). Manager: D Bassett.

Crystal Palace: N Martyn; R Shaw, G Southgate, C Coleman, E Young, A Thorn, S Osborn, G Thomas, C Armstrong, S Rodger, E McGoldrick. Subs not used: P Williams, A Woodman (gk), G Ndah. Manager: S Coppell.

Referee: J Martin (Hampshire).

Goal: Coleman (0-1, 44 min).