The play-offs are a tense, frustrating place and both Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion will have left Selhurst Park aggrieved at this goalless grind. It was probably a fair result – Brighton were the better team in the first half, Palace the second. But given the high stakes and slim margins at this stage of the season, there was regret on both sides.
Brighton must now be favourites to go through, given home advantage on Monday night, no away-goals rule and the second-half knee ligament injury to Glenn Murray, which will certainly rule him out of Monday night and maybe far longer.
But they could already be making Wembley preparations had they capitalised on their early dominance by scoring any of a set of headers. They played all of their best football in the first 20 minutes but could neither exploit it nor sustain it.
Palace, coming into this game in no form at all, grew into the contest, and were eventually well on top before Murray’s knee injury and Jonny Williams’ enforced departure with cramp. Deprived of their goals and their creativity, they were slowed down over the final stage of the game and now have to go to the Amex without a goal in the bank.
Even though each side had a few chances this was not a game to live up to the special atmosphere. Beyond the pitch, on the streets and in the stands, it was fervent and ferocious. A derby is one thing and a play-off another but the noise here was fitting of both.
Within the white lines, though, it was often tight and tense, the best quality coming at the start. Though it was immediately clear which of these teams had galloped into fourth place, unbeaten in nine, and which had limped into fifth, with one win in 10. Brighton were brisker from the beginning, moving the ball too quickly for their nervous hosts.
The first of many warnings came after just four minutes when an offside Inigo Calderon drifted free in the penalty area and headed over from close range. Palace’s defence struggled with Brighton’s movement and next it was Leonadro Ulloa, meeting Wayne Bridge’s cross from six yards out but diverting the ball wide. When Dean Hammond forced a brilliant save from Julian Speroni with yet another point-blank header it briefly seemed as if this tie might be over quickly.
Ian Holloway’s preference for Williams over Yannick Bolasie on the left brought slightly more nuance to Palace’s play but they were in need of a spark, leading Wilfried Zaha, playing his last home game for Crystal Palace, having to try to deliver himself. Zaha won a deep free-kick from which Matthew Upson held Murray, but no penalty was awarded. Next, Zaha burst down the right and crossed but Williams was simply not tall enough to head in.
Williams lifted the crowd with his dips and twists that make him such a special player. They reached the interval level, not very impressive, but pleased to have survived an early storm.
With the relief and release of a side who had escaped some serious damage, Palace began the second half far better. Zaha moved to the left wing, where he gave Calderon far more of a problem than he could cause Bridge. Eight minutes in, after beating him both ways, his low flashed cross was inches away from being turned in at the near post by Williams. Kagisho Dikgacoi had a shot cleared off the line.
For the first time of the evening Palace could call themselves the better team, but a long stoppage for a bad knee injury to Murray halted their momentum. Aaron Wilbraham, eager but not quite as sharp, came on for him. Williams then cramped and had to be replaced by Bolasie.
A depleted Palace continued to push for the last 20 minutes but, even with Kevin Phillips on too, failed to create much more than Bolasie’s flash wide from 20 yards. One of these teams will have to do better next time.
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1) Speroni; Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey; Dikgacoi, Jedinak; Zaha, Garvan (Phillips, 85), Williams (Bolasie, 75); Murray (Wilbraham, 64)
Brighton (4-2-3-1) Kuszczak; Calderon, Greer, Upson, Bridge; Hammond, Bridcutt; Buckley (Lualua, 72), Lopez, Orlandi (Barnes, 85); Ulloa
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland)