Football: Palace fall at the last

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace. . .0

Newcastle United. .1

Beardsley 89

Attendance: 17,760

THE Toon Army had not exactly been brought to a trembling halt when, earlier in the week, Alan Smith had said Palace were a team for big occasions. They probably asked when Palace were last involved in a big occasion anyway.

But at Selhurst Park they came within a minute of seeing Newcastle drop their first points away from home. A screaming last-gasp half-volley from Peter Beardsley was more than the Premiership leaders deserved and cruel on a Palace side who were outstanding.

Unbeaten runs are all very well but even Liverpool and Manchester United have had cause to curse them as burdens for themselves and targets for opponents. Over the past few weeks Newcastle's run had begun to weigh them down. They had to give every ounce to hold Blackburn to a draw last weekend and it seemed that the dreaded word pressure was entering their vocabulary.

Palace urgently needed some words of comfort and were at first in good voice as the Newcastle defence fumbled with the searching crosses of John Salako, one of which could easily have seen them embarrassed after only a minute when Steve Howey miscued a header and Gareth Southgate volleyed inches over the bar.

Occasional deep midfield invention by the returning Beardsley, some questioning runs down the right by Ruel Fox and a shot by Scott Sellars that Nigel Martyn needed to palm over suggested that Newcastle were about to reverse the trend, but far from it.

A potential classic of curious goals - when Pavel Srnicek blasted an attempted clearance into Chris Armstrong -was only avoided when the keeper dropped like a cat off a wall to save the rebounding ball.

Srnicek redeemed himself splendidly after 22 minutes when John Humphrey floated the ball into his penalty area leaving Southgate ample time to control it and shoot. But the goalkeeper anticipated the danger well, throwing himself down to stifle the shot. Even so, Palace had done enough to suggest that Newcastle were feeling the strain.

While their counter-attacks were always attractive, Newcastle clearly missed Robert Lee, and defensively there was an unusual lack of organisation that Palace capably exploited, belying the 16-point difference between the sides. Richard Shaw and Chris Coleman kept a tight hold on Andy Cole and Paul Kitson, who was making a hesitant first League appearance for Newcastle.

The persistence and impressive control of Armstrong ensured that Palace's well- maintained pressure always had a magnet. Neither Philippe Albert nor Howey had his measure, which accounted for the fact that Newcastle rarely had time to compose themselves at the back or set up Beardsley in the middle of the field.

In terms of goal chances Palace were winners by quite a way. Their best efforts in a second half they dominated came when Salako again centred menacingly for Andy Preece to have his attempt at the far post scrambled away, and when Salako again threaded a diagonal cross clean through the penalty area where, astonishingly, no Palace player could get a proper touch.

Salako was just one of 11 Palace players who played out of their skins and he continually caught the eye with his pace on the left. He had just lifted another teasing centre for Armstrong to head firmly and Srnicek to push away when Fox drove a hopeful ball in the 89th minute into the Palace defence. The ball was laid back by Steve Watson and Beardsley, who had been subdued, lashed a 20- yard shot into the top corner.