Johnson sends Eagles' hopes soaring

Crystal Palace 1 Walsall 0

Even the Eagles did not believe they would dare to be flying this high when Iain Dowie took over at Christmas, but up there they are after Andy Johnson's late penalty prised the Premiership door ajar for Crystal Palace and opened the Second Division trap-door still further for Walsall.

Palace now need only a draw at Coventry next Sunday to confirm the play-off berth they leap-frogged into yesterday. And in this mood they must be favourites to make the biggest leap of all. They were fourth from bottom when Dowie assumed control - they are now fifth from top. Not a bad four months in charge.

"Everyone goes on about my achievement," Dowie said, "but the key to all this has been the players. They were here when it was all going wrong and they're the ones who've turned it round. We are a positive club and I've never been one for shouting 'no' at players. We always believe."

Not that there weren't a few sceptics at Selhurst as the minutes ticked down and Jim Walker, the Walsall goalkeeper, made match-saving tip-over after match-saving tip-over. "Fair enough to Walsall, they came to do a job and did it well," Dowie said. "I hope they do enough next week to stay up."

That will mean a victory at home to Rotherham, when they will no doubt be employing a more positive approach than yesterday's. Paul Merson, referring to the demands of management, said the other day, that "sometimes I find myself still at work at 3pm", although the temporary player-coach's canny tactics yesterday indicated that perhaps he has been putting in the requisite overtime.

Rarely have a team who had seemed so desperate for a win been sent out with such a negative gameplan. If the 5-4-1 formation did not give Walsall's scant ambition away then the sight of the lone striker, Lee Bradbury, running the ball to the corner flag surely did. The clock read 18 minutes at the time.

And for the majority of the afternoon it looked like working, as the point that would have meant Gillingham needing to win at Stoke next week dangled provocatively before them until the penalty cruelly arrived with time running out. Even then it was disputed; Merson adjudging Paul Ritchie's push on the substitute Tommy Black to be "barely an obstruction" - and saved by Walker as well. But to the delight of the crowd, Johnson was there to follow in the rebound.

Cue an outbreak of emotion that had been bubbling under as the deepest frustration as Palace had tied themselves into knots trying to break Walsall down. "I just couldn't see them getting through," Merson said. "I'm amazed this keeper is at Walsall, because he's better than a lot of the boys in the Premiership."

Walker provided the evidence for the plaudits with at least four world-class saves in a first half that Palace monopolised from whistle to whistle - one off the head of Neil Shipperley on the half-hour mark that looked all the world a goal - before his defenders took his cue and threw their own bodies to the cause.

Aki Riihilahti then came closest to breaking the Walsall deadlock on the hour as his header at the far post off Danny Granville's cross seemed booked for the net. But Walker was there, as he had been all afternoon. Alas, his heroics were not to be enough to stop Johnson from notching his 31st, and most important, goal of the season.

Crystal Palace 1 Walsall 0
Johnson 88

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 21,518

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