Football: Riihilahti's last-gasp strike hands 10-man Palace deserved escape

West Bromwich Albion 2 Crystal Palace 2
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The Independent Online
THE WIN that an increasingly desperate Albion so badly needed to keep alive their Premiership survival chances danced tantalisingly before their eyes in a dramatic finish at The Hawthorns, in which both sides scored in stoppage time.

Bryan Robson's side, trailing to Andy Johnson's goal after the early dismissal of defender Gonzalo Sorondo had given them a one-man advantage, equalised through Kevin Campbell with eight minutes left before the substitute Rob Earnshaw put them ahead in time added on.

Victory seemed theirs, the gap between themselves and 17th place, which Palace themselves occupy, apparently cut from five points to two. Albion had deviated from the script - no one more than Darren Purse, their captain, whose error of judgment two minutes into the second half had handed the lead to Palace - but they needed a win if they were to launch a late escape bid from seemingly inevitable relegation.

However, there was another twist. Palace, suspicious that Earnshaw's goal had been offside, had their own agenda after defending their lead valiantly with 10 men.

Gary Borrowdale struck a free-kick into the penalty area, Emmerson Boyce headed goalwards, Aki Riihilahti stretched out a foot and somehow, despite a pack of Albion defenders trying to keep it out, the ball crossed the line. Fitz Hall applied a final touch, although the goal was credited to his team-mate.

It was all too much, apparently, for Robson, who sent his assistant, Nigel Pearson, to bang the drum on his behalf. "To give away a goal as late as we did is very disappointing," Pearson said. "But there is no point in us giving up the ghost. We have another big game at Norwich on Saturday and we intend to come back with three points."

The dismissal of Sorondo in only the 12th minute looked particularly harsh. He had brought down the Albion striker Geoff Horsfield in full flight but given that the defender was upsides rather than behind his quarry, and that even Wayne Rooney might have been hard pressed to score from Horsfield's position, wide on the left, the judgement that Sorondo had committed a red-card offence was hard to fathom.

Ironically, the home side had not looked in need of help from the officials. With Campbell and Horsfield restored in attack in preference to Kanu and Earnshaw, they made the brighter beginning. They should have been in front at half-time, Campbell squandering their best chance by heading over from close range after Purse's cross had found him inadequately marked.

Even so, the odds were in favour of an Albion win until self-inflicted catastrophe struck two minutes in the second period. Faced with a clearance deep into home territory by the Palace keeper, Purse was well placed to head clear but instead ducked under the ball, presumably in the belief that Russell Hoult had it covered. Hoult did not and Johnson allowed the ball to bounce once before heading it over Hoult.

Ultimately Albion's quest for an equaliser paid off. Powell's sliced attempted clearance from a Zoltan Gera cross was palmed away desperately by Gabor Kiraly but Campbell forced the ball home. When Earnshaw then put them ahead, chipping over Kiraly after Campbell had put him in behind the Palace back line, it seemed victory would be theirs. But Palace had the last word, justifiably according to Dowie.

"I wasn't sure Gonzalo had committed a foul let alone deserved a straight red card and I thought we defended heroically after that," he said. "A point was no more than we deserved."

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Hoult; Albrechtsen (Richardson, 70), Purse, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Scimeca, Wallwork, Greening; Campbell, Horsfield (Earnshaw, 54). Substitutes not used: Gaardsoe, Kanu, Kuszczak (gk).

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall, Sorondo, Borrowdale; Soares, Leigertwood, Hughes, Freedman (Powell 13; Riihilahti, 86), Routledge; Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Andrews, Lakis.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire)