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Football: Freedman in knock-out form

Crystal Palace 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
If the pressures of managing Manchester City proved too great for Steve Coppell you wonder how much longer he is going to last at Selhurst Park. Not only did Saturday's First Division play-off semi-final first leg feature three goals in a heart-stopping last two minutes, but it also demonstrated Crystal Palace's capacity to score thrilling goals and concede sloppy ones in almost equal measure.

More particularly, the match emphasised what a challenge Dougie Freedman sets for any manager. The 23-year-old Scot, who came on as a substitute to score two of those late goals, is by common consent the most skilful forward and best finisher on Palace's books, yet he has started most games on the bench for the last six months.

Freedman got into the Scotland squad earlier this season after a run of form that produced nine goals in his first 18 League games. However, after the signing of Neil Shipperley in October he was moved out of the front line and into a more deep-lying role.

The former Queen's Park Rangers and Barnet player clearly did not relish the switch and after a lengthy absence through illness was never able to recapture his early-season form. Before Saturday he had scored only twice since November.

The frustrations Freedman has felt came to a head in the final game of the season against Port Vale last week, when he was sent off after punching an opponent. For a player who usually gives the impression that he does not relish the physical side of the game, it was a rare moment of aggression.

That irresponsible dismissal would see Freedman suspended if Palace reach the play-off final and it could yet prove the most decisive moment in their season. Having come on for the lacklustre Bruce Dyer, Freedman proved here what an excellent goalscorer he can be with two first-class strikes.

Palace were leading 1-0 through Shipperley's header from a Simon Rodger corner when Freedman scored a goal out of nothing after 89 minutes. Seizing on a loose ball just outside the Wolves penalty area, he lashed an unstoppable shot past Mike Stowell. Wolves equalised a minute later when Andy Linighan's careless header led to Jamie Smith shooting home his first goal for the club at the far post, but Freedman was not finished yet.

When Andy Roberts floated a free-kick into the penalty area Wolves failed to catch Palace in their offside trap and Linighan headed the ball down for Freedman to chip a delicate lob over Stowell. Wolves players vehemently claimed offside, but television replays showed that the referee, Neale Barry, had been correct to let the goal stand.

Mark McGhee, the Wolves manager, also spoke to the referee afterwards but said it was "a totally relaxed and controlled exchange". He added: "It was a crazy decision to play offside and I have told my players that. We had not played it all game. It was a big, big goal for them and it has made it very difficult for us."

As for Freedman, the moment of madness he had shown a week earlier was still uppermost in his mind. "It was a good day for me, although it doesn't make up for what I did last week," he said. "Being sent off against Port Vale made me more determined to do well. I felt very low for the fans and my team-mates, and will definitely learn from my experiences."

The drama of the final minutes was not in keeping with what had been a tight and nervous affair, although Palace were clearly the better side on the day. Dean Gordon's forays down the left wing set up several half- chances, David Hopkin regularly moved forward from midfield to good effect and Shipperley was always a handful in attack.

However, as Coppell stressed afterwards, the tie is far from over, particularly as Wolves have an away goal. Nevertheless, McGhee's team will need to improve substantially on this showing.

Despite Steve Bull's tireless running, Wolves showed depressingly little flair in attack. They defended impressively for an hour, but the late lapses were characteristic of a season in which they have repeatedly flattered to deceive.

Goals: Shipperley (68) 1-0; Freedman (89) 2-0; Smith (90) 2-1; Freedman (90) 3-2.

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Nash; Edworthy, Davies, Roberts, Linighan, Gordon; Hopkin, Houghton (Veart, 63), Rodger; Dyer (Freedman, 74), Shipperley. Substitute not used: Muscat.

Wolves (5-3-2): Stowell; Smith, Williams, Atkins, Curle, Thompson; Osborn, Ferguson, Thomas; Bull (Foley, 85), Roberts. Substitutes not used: Law, Robinson.

Referee: N S Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Palace: Davies. Wolves: Williams, Curle, Ferguson.

Man of the match: Gordon.

Attendance: 21,053.