Palace show valid play-off credentials

Crystal Palace 1 Walsall 0

Conventional wisdom says that the play-offs are won either by the team in form or the one with luck on their side. If that proves to be the case in the First Division later this month, Crystal Palace can start preparing now for their return to the Premiership.

Conventional wisdom says that the play-offs are won either by the team in form or the one with luck on their side. If that proves to be the case in the First Division later this month, Crystal Palace can start preparing now for their return to the Premiership.

After losing their first game under Iain Dowie's charge, at home to Millwall on Boxing Day, Palace were 20th in the table, 14 places and 13 points off the play-off places and with just seven wins from their first 25 matches. Saturday's victory at Selhurst Park, which lifted Palace to fifth place and leaves them needing only a point at Coventry next weekend to secure their play-off place, was their 14th in their last 20 matches and their sixth in the last seven.

Yet for all their exhilarating play of late, it took an outrageous stroke of good fortune to secure three points here. Walsall, fighting for First Division survival, had defended heroically for 87 minutes until Tommy Black took the ball into the visitors' penalty area. The Palace substitute appeared to run straight into Simon Osborn, but to Walsall's horror, the referee, David Pugh, pointed to the spot.

Even then, Walsall's agony was not over. Jim Walker, who had already made several outstanding saves, kept out Andy Johnson's penalty, only for the Palace striker to score from the rebound.

While Palace were fortunate with the penalty award, Dowie correctly pointed out that they had been denied two strong claims earlier in the match for fouls on Johnson and Neil Shipperley. Indeed, Palace's front two never gave up against Walsall's five-man defence, Johnson's pace and bravery proving a constant threat while Shipperley's strength and intelligent play regularly created openings for his strike partner.

Palace, however, looked pedestrian in midfield, where they badly missed the suspended Michael Hughes, and Wayne Routledge and Julian Gray usually found themselves outnumbered on the flanks. Not that Dowie, after his team's recent run of form, was in any mood to criticise.

"The players have been magnificent," he said. "People questioned their commitment earlier this season and they've responded resoundingly. They've formed that self-motivation to move on. There was a quietly determined silence in the dressing-room before the game. They are hungry. Reaching the play-offs would mean a huge amount to the supporters and the players."

Walsall were well organised and rarely looked in serious trouble. Although they must win their last match of the season at home to Rotherham to stand any chance of avoiding relegation, the fact that Gillingham have a tough game away to Stoke City (whose manager, Tony Pulis, would surely love to put one over on his former club), offers more than a glimmer of hope.

Paul Merson, Walsall's caretaker player-manager, was understandably upset by the penalty decision but took heart from his team's performance. "I'm proud of my players because everything we asked of them they did," he said. "I couldn't see them breaking us down and they could be playing in the Premiership next season."

Goal: Johnson (88) 1-0.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Vaesen; Butterfield (Black, 83), Leigertwood, Popovic, Granville; Routledge, Riihilahti (Watson, 79), Derry (Freedman, 65), Gray; Johnson, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Berthelin (gk), Borrowdale.

Walsall (5-4-1): Walker; Bazeley (Fryatt, 90), Roper, Emblen, Ritchie, Aranalde; Wright, Osborn, Andrews, Wrack (Taylor, 73); Bradbury (Leitão, 72). Substitutes not used: Kerr (gk), Merson.

Bookings: Walsall: Ritchie, Osborn, Wright, Andrews, Roper.

Referee: D Pugh (Merseyside).

Man of the match: Jim Walker.

Attendance: 21,518.

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