Dowie forces United to focus on Europe

Crystal Palace 0 - Manchester United 0
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The Independent Online

Manchester United travel to Milan this morning hoping that the fortune which eluded them at Selhurst Park on Saturday will manifest in the San Siro tomorrow evening. Credit is due to Crystal Palace for a disciplined and resolute rearguard action but they were grateful that fate, for a change, snubbed the big battalion.

Manchester United travel to Milan this morning hoping that the fortune which eluded them at Selhurst Park on Saturday will manifest in the San Siro tomorrow evening. Credit is due to Crystal Palace for a disciplined and resolute rearguard action but they were grateful that fate, for a change, snubbed the big battalion.

There were four borderline decisions which might have gone United's way on another day: a late flag denied Roy Keane after he appeared to have sprung the offside trap at an early set-piece; Emmerson Boyce escaped the censure of a penalty for muscling Alan Smith over in the first half, and nudging Wayne Rooney in the second; and Fitz Hall survived an injury-time penalty appeal after Rio Ferdinand's cross struck his hand. Add some uncharacteristic misses by a rusty Ruud van Nistelrooy and it is clear that United could easily have secured their seventh successive Premiership victory.

They did not and the championship finally appears beyond them. If Chelsea take 20 points from their remaining 10 matches they are champions regardless of United's results. So United's focus must be on the Champions' League which, in truth, it already was: witness Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes on the bench. Milan hold a one-goal lead but Iain Dowie, Palace's manager, believes United can prevail.

"It is not over," he said. "There will be an expectation on Milan to play and I can see United getting goals. They have the players and I'd love to see them go through because it is great to see sides which play attacking football succeed."

United's commitment to attack, a feature of the Alex Ferguson era, was on show at Selhurst as it is every week. One interested observer was the Palace midfielder, Michael Hughes, an old United foe. Ten years ago he scored the West Ham goal that denied United the title on the final day of the season. United, he said, had developed as a team since then. "This team is more fluid in terms of movement. Then they were strict 4-4-2 with [Ryan] Giggs on one side and [David] Beckham on the other, two centre backs and two in central midfield. They have a lot more movement now. They do a lot of running with the ball and someone is always running behind off the ball as well. They probably have more outstanding individuals now."

Countering that movement was crucial to Palace's point. "We did a lot of work on their rotation," said Dowie after a week studying United videos. "In midfield the key to playing Man U is to keep them in front of you. It's not easy and you have to concentrate. There we went man-for-man but at the back we had to keep our shape and not be disturbed by their movement. We had to let them go across us. If you follow someone in from a full-back position they will play the ball to where you came from."

Ominously for United it was a defender with Milanese connections who masterminded Palace's defence, Gonzalo Sorondo, who was signed from Internazionale. Though all but Vassilis Lakis, whose careless tackling resulted in dismissal, were heroes, Sorondo's composure, Fitz Hall's commitment and Gabor Kiraly's secure handling were the rocks on which United foundered.

"We need nine more performances like that," said Dowie. "To survive we are going to need to think clearly under pressure, pass the ball, keep possession, defend doggedly and score a few goals. We need desire and a commitment to each other. We must trust in each other. That will be the key."

United will need the same qualities tomorrow.

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall, Sorondo, Granville; Routledge (Borrowdale, 65), Leigertwood, Hughes, Soares, Lakis; Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Freeman, Torghelle, Kolkka.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Howard; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; P Neville (Ronaldo, 56), Keane, Fortune (Scholes, 56); Smith (Rooney, 73), Van Nistelrooy, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), O'Shea.

Referee: M Clattenberg (Tyne & Wear).

Booked: Crystal Palace: Hughes, Soares, Sorondo, Lakis, Kiraly. Manchester United: Giggs, Rooney, Ferdinand, Heinze.

Sent off: Lakis.

Man of the match: Sorondo.

Attendance: 26,021.

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