Keegan looks ahead to gracing the grand stage

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The Independent Online

Something strange happened during this match. No, not on the pitch, where the football meandered along a set route as surely as the trams in Manchester's city centre, but in the mouthings of the managers. You listened and reality was being confronted.

Kevin Keegan, hitherto as cautious as his tactics are exuberant, conceded Manchester City are going to be promoted while Trevor Francis suggested that Crystal Palace probably will not. Yes, both sets of supporters could have told them that weeks ago, but we are talking managers here and, verbally at least, they inhabit different worlds.

Planet Keegan, for example, has been issuing "don't get too optimistic" messages for weeks but six successive wins wiped away the doubts. "We're going to the Premiership now," he said. "It's the least these fans deserve and we are a Premiership side." Francis, meanwhile, was confronting disappointment after one win in eight matches.

"Mathematically the play-offs are still possible," he said, "but we'll need to win five of the next six matches and that would be very, very difficult." The irony was that the under-achievement on Saturday came from City. In the match programme Keegan was comparing his side favourably to the Newcastle side he took to the Premiership in 1993 but on the pitch they spluttered and misfired. They went ahead after 10 minutes when Kevin Horlock took advantage of Shaun Wright-Phillips' immaculate cross to head in from point-blank range but then failed to deliver the usual rout.

Keegan could take solace from the points gained from a lacklustre performance that in the past would have led to a reverse and that Wolves, their only rivals for the First Division championship, had been beaten at home. City are now five points ahead and their game in hand is against the closest things in football to cannon fodder, Stockport County, tomorrow. The old City would lose that but the new one are likely to run riot. The last time they were in the Premiership they were slow and limited; the current side are dripping with ideas.

"They have scored a lot of goals," Francis said, "and when you look at the attacking options they have you can see why. They've got the league's leading scorer in Shaun Goater, Darren Huckerby, who has been in fantastic form, and Ali Bernabia is a player the Premiership should look forward to seeing. He and Eyal Berkovic are outstanding players who provide such a good service to the front players."

But if City's prospects are rosy, then Keegan could also see potential in Palace. "Other teams have tried to nullify us," he said, "but they haven't been as good at it. Maybe not this time, but next year I think Palace will be a danger. They've hit a bad patch at the wrong time, which looks to have put the play-offs out of reach, but they will be a fair bet for promotion. They've got some young players, some good athletes, and, if the chairman has the courage to back Trevor, they'll be very close." A football chairman with courage? Oh dear, there goes reality.

Goal: Horlock (10) 1-0.

Manchester City (3-4-1-2): Nash; Dunne, Wiekens, Pearce; Wright Phillips, Horlock, Tiatto (Sun Jihai, h-t), Jensen; Bernabia; Huckerby, Goater (Macken, 72). Substitutes not used: Howey, Mettomo, Royce (gk).

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Clarke (gk); Austin, Mullins, Murphy; Smith (Rodger, 85), Thomson, Gray (Kirovski, h-t) , Riihilahti, Granville; Freedman (Akinbiyi, 58), Morrison. Substitutes not used: Berhalter, Kolinko (gk).

Man of the match: Horlock.

Bookings: Manchester City: Horlock, Sun Jihai. Crystal Palace: Riihilahti, Smith.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Chester-le-Street).

Attendance: 33,637.

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