Football: Stewart lifts Palace

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace. . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Coleman 40, Armstrong 84

Leicester City. . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Thompson 9

Attendance: 17,045

A GAME of gathering intensity and drama was deservedly won by Crystal Palace, who replaced Leicester at the First Division's summit when Chris Armstrong scored five minutes from time at Selhurst Park yesterday.

Armstrong's persistence was greeted euphorically by the majority of the 17,045 crowd, but it was the on-loan Paul Stewart, the more experienced half of a potentially exciting attacking partnership, who gave Alan Smith's side a much-needed cutting edge after three successive defeats. Suddenly, Palace resemble a Premiership team in waiting.

After 19 months as a pounds 2.3m Anfield misfit, Stewart clearly enjoyed the warm reception and unexpected limelight. 'I'm just happy to be playing again,' he said afterwards as his new fan club formed noisily nearby. 'I needed a clean break from Liverpool but it's too early to talk about the future. I've only been here four days. The fans may like me after one game, but if I had two bad ones they'd want me out. It's happened to me before.'

Smith, his refreshingly open manager, said Palace 'could afford' to make Stewart's presence permanent. 'We've been really pleased with him.'

Understandably so. Stewart's intelligent leading of the line, combined with his muscular flicks and ability to hold up play, were the precise commodities Palace required. The former England international made an immediate impact, his aerial supremacy affording Armstrong a string of opportunities to show his pace.

But before the Eagles' daring duo really hit their stride, Palace fell behind, Steve Thompson's deflected 30-yard free-kick sailing past Nigel Martyn in the ninth minute.

Palace replied five minutes before the break. Chris Coleman, heroic in defence, found time to stride forward and drive a fine shot past Kevin Poole.

The second half was physical and compelling. John Salako forced a save of the highest order from Poole, who then needed to be at his very best again to tip over Armstrong's header.

Stewart had a downward header blocked on the line before showing the other side to his character, an ugly challenge on Gary Mills bringing him a booking and nearly a lynching.

His new team's winner was a strange affair. Armstrong claimed the goal from a close-range effort, although there was a suspicion that Colin Hill may have had the final touch.