Higginbotham the injury-time assassin

Crystal Palace 2 - Southampton 2
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The Independent Online

Iain Dowie, Crystal Palace's admirably organised manager, had summarised his team's gameplan for their most important match of the season with five bullet points, but could not have planned for the bullet that Southampton's centre-back Danny Higginbotham fired into the home team's net in the third minute of injury time. It was an improbably dramatic moment for the defender to register his first goal for the club, who, with only Manchester United left to play, had seemed fated to end an unbroken run of 27 years in the top flight of English football.

Iain Dowie, Crystal Palace's admirably organised manager, had summarised his team's gameplan for their most important match of the season with five bullet points, but could not have planned for the bullet that Southampton's centre-back Danny Higginbotham fired into the home team's net in the third minute of injury time. It was an improbably dramatic moment for the defender to register his first goal for the club, who, with only Manchester United left to play, had seemed fated to end an unbroken run of 27 years in the top flight of English football.

Now the two sides, each of whom had a man sent off on a fractious afternoon, are left hoping they have not cut each other's throats and allowed an escape route to Norwich, who lead them by a point and will stay up if they record a first away win of the season at Fulham next Sunday. Palace, meanwhile, travel round the South Circular Road to Charlton, where they have already won this season with a sub-strength team in the Carling Cup, and Southampton will want Manchester United to have minds on the FA Cup final and nothing to play for when they visit St Mary's.

It is not a time for faint hearts or anything other than the boldest of talk, though Dowie admitted: "The manner of the defeat - sorry, the draw - is difficult to swallow. It feels like a defeat." He soon recovered to bang the drum in more characteristically ebullient fashion, insisting: "We're still in there fighting. We've hung in there valiantly and I fully expect us to get the result we need."

So does Southampton's Harry Redknapp, who believes that crucial late goals by Henri Camara against Norwich last week and now Higginbotham indicate the force is with his side. "I thought we'd gone until Danny popped up, but I still think we'll do it. Maybe it's meant to be. Norwich haven't won away all season, and Charlton won't lie down against Palace."

He had to concede that his team will miss Peter Crouch, the matchstick man so important to their direct style, who will be suspended after being sent off with the home side's Gonzalo Sorondo after an innocuous incident early in the second half that was inflamed by the quite unnecessary intervention of Graeme Le Saux.

Crouch clumsily fouled the Palace right-back, who reacted mildly and was rewarded with an arm to the head. Le Saux, supposedly one of our more cerebral footballers, piled in to confront Sorondo, whose retaliation this time was angrier. Another dozen players saw fit to join the fray and even Dowie was in there, making his feelings known to Le Saux. According to Redknapp, the referee intended issuing only yellow cards, but after consulting his assistant and the fourth official dismissed Crouch and Sorondo, and let the fortunate Le Saux off the hook.

Haphazard defending has undermined both teams' efforts all season and was again evident in all four goals. Eleven minutes before the interval, Palace's busy little Michael Hughes - ludicrously named by one newspaper last week as the worst player in the Premiership, for which he should sue - knocked forward a long ball which the accident-prone Claus Lundekvam and Higginbotham failed to deal with.

Fitz Hall, on the edge of the area, swivelled and hit a fine shot past Antti Niemi. That depressed Redknapp, who had been working all week on preventing the concession of bad goals, but delighted Dowie, who first developed Hall at Oldham Athletic before signing him from Southampton for £1.5m last summer.

Joy and despair were quickly reversed. From the kick-off, the visitors broke forward, Camara forcing a blatant handling offence from Tony Popovic, who was too obviously guilty even to consider protesting. After a nerve-racking delay while the ball was blown off the spot, Crouch converted the penalty with admirable calm for his 16th goal of the campaign.

Players and crowd were suddenly enlivened. Nigel Quashie hit a 30-yard drive narrowly over Palace's bar, and Hughes shot from similar distance at the other end after a knockdown by Andrew Johnson, Niemi bringing off an exceptional save with one hand as the ball arrowed towards the top corner of his net. Johnson, watched by the England head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, had a disappointingly quiet day, contributing only the first yellow card of the game for a real striker's tackle on Matt Oakley.

It had always seemed likely, given all the surrounding tensions, that the referee would be kept busy, and so he was after half-time. Following the double sending-off, Redknapp sensibly decided to substitute Le Saux, bringing on Phillips, while Dowie commendably went for an extra striker to try and secure the desperately required win. He was soon rewarded, the new man, Nicola Ventola, moving unmarked on to Tom Soares's long ball from right-back to beat Niemi before indulging in an understandably extravagant celebration.

When Gabor Kiraly, aka The Man In The Baggy Grey Tracksuit, got a hand to Camara's shot from six yards right at the end of normal time, Palace must have thought they were home and just about dry. Amazingly, Southampton still found the time and spirit to dampen their day. Phillips was left as criminally unattended as Ventola had been and drove the ball across goal, where Higginbotham, presumably holding his breath, side-footed in. A week today he will discover just how important that moment really was.

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