Football: Hughes ends drama

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West Bromwich Albion 3 Crystal Palace 2

MUCH OF the drama at The Hawthorns last night was contained in the final 10 minutes of play as West Bromwich claimed a victory that lifts them into the top eight in the First Division and Lee Hughes completed a controversial hat-trick that takes his goal tally as the country's top scorer to 18.

Palace were reduced to 10 men with 20 minutes remaining as Sun Jihai became their third player to be sent off in two matches and then his Chinese international team-mate, Fan Zhiyi, was at the centre of an incident following the final whistle in which referee Terry Heilbron apparently claimed he had been assaulted by the Palace defender.

This followed the awarding of a penalty in stoppage time by the official after the Albion substitute, Enzo Maresca, had tumbled in the area under a challenge from Craig Moore.

Palace had equalised for a second time in the 87th minute, with Moore the scorer, but the penalty in the second minute of added time saw Hughes clinch the points for the home side.

It was a dramatic end to a contest that had started with a bang when Hughes put Albion ahead after 60 seconds, the 22-year-old seizing on a chance presented to him by Fan's underhit back-pass, taking the ball around Fraser Digby and slotting it into an empty net.

Palace recovered their composure and looked the better side in the closing stages of the first half. Their sought -after forward Matt Jansen, reportedly the target of a pounds 5m bid from Southampton, put them level after 29 minutes when he wriggled through a clutch of Albion defenders near the edge of the penalty area before unleashing a speculative shot that went in off the right-hand post. Indeed, Jansen perhaps should have sent Palace in at half-time in front, missing an easier opportunity when he headed wide from Marcus Bent's cross.

However, Albion regained the upper hand in the second half after the dismissal of Sun, when a foul on Hughes brought his second yellow card.

Hughes headed them in front in the 83rd minute rising at the far post after substitute Fabian DeFreitas had delivered a centre from the left.

That goal seemed likely to be decisive with Palace rarely able to mount any kind of counter-attack but Lee Bradbury, Palace's pounds 1.5m acquisition from Manchester City, appeared as a late substitute for the injured Bent and it was his run that led to Palace clawing back a second equaliser. After Bradbury crossed from the right, Attilio Lombardo saw a shot parried by Alan Miller and Moore reacted quickly to slam home the rebound.

Palace probably deserved a point, but the Hughes penalty consigned them to a fourth consecutive away defeat.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Miller; McDermott (Mardon, 81), Murphy, Carbon, Van Blerk; Quinn, Bortolazzi, Flynn (Maresca, 81), Kilbane; Hughes, Evans (DeFreitas, 54).

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Digby; Austin, Burton, Moore, Fan Zhiyi, Sun Jihai; Lombardo, Mullins, Foster; Bent (Bradbury, 81), Jansen (Amsalem, 75). Substitute not used: Morrison.

Referee: T Heilbron (Newton Aycliffe).