If Manchester United required any favours, which before yesterday was doubtful in any case, one came in a mighty dollop, courtesy of Crystal Palace, who deprived Blackburn Rovers of their expected victory at Ewood Park. Moreover, Palace came within 13 minutes of beating United's closest challengers. Such a result, considering the catalogue of Blackburn near misses and the one-sided nature of an engrossing game, would have been the stuff of fantasies.
As it was, a Palace point bordered on the incredible, helped in no small matter by a goal which had the Blackburn manager, Roy Hodgson, delivering a ticking-off to his groundsman.
Tim Flowers misjudged former Rover Paul Warhurst's weak header and fumbled the ball into the net to give Palace a 2-1 lead.
But Hodgson blamed the pitch, claiming that the ball had hit a divot and reared up over his keeper. Groundsman Steve Patrick has just won the groundsman of the year award, but that made little difference to Hodgson.
"I am very angry about that goal," he said. "The last time I saw a goal like that it was in schoolboy football. Flowers possibly went down too early, but the fact is that the ball hardly had enough pace to get over the goal-line if it had not pitched up.
"I don't know what steps to take - I have already told the groundsman what I think."
However, it is not for nothing that Steve Coppell's team possess the best away record in the Premiership. For their resilience Palace deserved something here. Their two goals came from three chances. Between the headed goals by Bruce Dyer and Warhurst, Dean Gordon hammered a low shot wide.
"Call it efficiency of effort," Coppell said. "But I am quite genuinely disappointed that we didn't nick all three points."
Palace's siege-like resistance finally crumbled when Chris Sutton ran in the 77th-minute equaliser for his 13th goal of the season after the gallant Kevin Miller had kept out Kevin Gallacher's low drive. Palace had to survive the remaining waves of Blackburn attacks but another goal was not to be and United's lead was trimmed to five points when it could have been three.
Such was Rovers' early head of steam that it hardly seemed to matter when Gary Flitcroft was adjudged offside after putting a header past Miller. Yet unbelievably, considering what had gone before, Dyer gave Palace an 11th-minute lead with an emphatic header from Jamie Smith's cross following a move by Warhurst and Neil Emblen.
Sutton sent Gallacher away to chip the equaliser past Miller and Andy Linighan's desperate attempt at a clearance a quarter of an hour later and that, we all assumed, must be that. But when the excellent Andy Roberts got back to scramble the ball off the line after Sutton had evaded Miller's dash to the edge of the area, Palace went in at the interval still all square.
The visitors' confidence must have increased at the sight of Blackburn resuming without Colin Hendry, who had damaged knee ligaments. Exploiting the sudden lack of height in the Blackburn defence, Warhurst met Dyer's cross two minutes after the restart with a routine header which was transformed into a goal by that divot.
Hardly believing their slice of further good fortune, Palace dug deeper into the trenches to keep Rovers out.
Goals: Gallacher (27) 1-0; Dyer (12) 1-1; Warhurst (48) 1-2; Sutton (78) 2-2.
Blackburn Rovers; Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry (Pedersen, h-t), Croft (Wilcox, 66); Sherwood, Flitcroft, Duff; Ripley, Sutton, Duff. Substitutes not used: Bohinen, Beattie, Fettis (gk).
Crystal Palace: Miller; Roberts; Smith, Linighan, Hreidarsson; Emblen, Roger, Ginty; Dyer (McKenzie, 74), Warhurst. Substitutes not used: Quinn, Pitcher, Burton, Nash (gk).
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).
Booked: Crystal Palace: Linighan.
Man of the match: Miller
Attendance: 23,872.Reuse content