Nervous Palace find inspiration in Johnson

Crystal Palace 3 Sunderland 2
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The Independent Football

Iain Dowie has spread a sort of messianic belief through Crystal Palace. Last night its benefits were all too raw as his team wrested the advantage from Sunderland in a committed, nerve-racked encounter.

Iain Dowie has spread a sort of messianic belief through Crystal Palace. Last night its benefits were all too raw as his team wrested the advantage from Sunderland in a committed, nerve-racked encounter.

A slender, pulsating victory pushed them nearer to the promised land - otherwise known, in the age of sporting hype, as the Premiership.

The second leg of this play-off semi-final takes place on Monday at the Stadium of Light, and Sunderland are far from beaten. If anything they looked the stronger side. Defeat here, after taking the lead, came courtesy of a late goal by Palace's other talisman Andy Johnson - his 31st of the season.

Sunderland's manager, Mick McCarthy, did little to endear himself to Palace fans when he talked about his opponents' "large slice of luck" in reaching the play-offs. He also rued the injury list which has deprived him of five players - Steven Wright was the latest - while Palace's squad was, just about, fully fit.

More than a semi-final was at stake. Several players from both clubs are either out-of-contract (10 for Sunderland alone) or will search for moves should they lose. Futures were being played for in every respect.

Palace defeated Sunderland 3-0 at Selhurst Park only last month, but the Wearsiders had Mart Poom sent off early on. That high-energy performance continued to confirm Palace as the form team but Sunderland have been bolstered, after an alarming wobble, by winning their last two League games.

"This is a marathon with an uphill finish," said the Palace manager Dowie but his team were quickly out of the traps with the quicksilver Julian Gray prominent down the left.

Palace's pace had troubled Sunderland in that League match but it was the visitors who threatened first with Kevin Kyle screwing a shot across goal. Considering what was at stake, the game was open, with both sides trying to play.

But as the tackles flew in, the game began to lose shape. The ball was moved on too quickly. Anxiety rose. On the half-hour Michael Hughes was lucky to escape censure after swinging an arm at Jason McAteer, who was later booked for his own petulance.

Sunderland defended deep, denying Palace space to run into. At the other end the referee, Richard Beeby, awarded Sunderland a free-kick on the edge of the area after a foul by Tony Popovic. Advantage should have been played as Marcus Stewart was through.

This roused the home side. Wayne Routledge ran across goal and should have shot, but squeezed the ball to Gray who skied the chance under pressure.

At half-time, McAteer was withdrawn, with McCarthy keen to avoid a red card. Within seconds of the restart Routledge did shoot but this time, after a rapid break, he delayed and the effort fell into the hands of Poom. Immediately, Jeff Whitley was allowed a ridiculous amount of space outside Palace's area and curled a shot on to the roof of the net.

Now Sunderland were fired. Popovic, just, denied Kyle as they tangled for a header and then the Australian defender mistimed a tackle and brought down Carl Robinson. The penalty was calmly rolled into the net with minimal power by Stewart.

But the lead lasted just two minutes as Shipperley cleverly looped a header, from near the penalty spot, over Poom and beneath the crossbar.

Both defences were ragged and Stewart almost restored the advantage from a corner, only for his unmarked header to drift wide.

Then Palace scored again. It was the kind of goal which can define such contests. From a free-kick, 35 yards out, Danny Butterfield speculated with a shot which ricocheted off at least two defenders, shifting direction, and sliding into the net.

Sunderland's frustration grew and George McCartney was fortunate to escape for a horrible tackle on Routledge, while the impressive John Oster almost restored parity with a low, right-foot shot which clipped the post and Robinson bundled a shot into Nico Vaesen's arms as he rushed into the area. The equaliser was inevitable. As the ball pinged into the area again after a foul by Gray, it fell to Kyle who drove firmly into the net.

But neither were Palace finished. As time ran out Andy Johnson, otherwise anonymous, burst forward and drove right-footed the winning goal.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Vaesen; Butterfield, Popovic, Leigertwood, Granville; Routledge, Hughes (Derry, 83), Riihilahti, Gray; Johnson, Shipperley (Powell, 89). Substitutes not used: Berthelin (gk), Freedman, Black.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Poom; McCartney, Breen, Babb, Williams (Bjorkland, 68); McAteer (Thornton, h-t), Robinson, Whitley, Oster; Kyle, Stewart (Smith, 76). Substitutes not used: Myrhe (gk), Clark.

Referee: R Beeby (Northamptonshire).