Ferguson's fury as 10-man Palace survive

Crystal Palace 0 - Manchester United 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On a day when one or two Eric Cantona masks appeared to slip past the Selhurst Park stewards, despite being officially banned as overly provocative, Manchester United could have done with the great man's imperious finishing. Ten years on from the infamous kung-fu kick on the same ground, they dominated all but the first 20 minutes of yesterday's game without managing to score, even after Crystal Palace had gone down to 10 men with the sending-off of the Greek midfielder Vassilis Lakis. From then on, the home side did not so much park the bus as a fleet of coaches in front of their goal.

On a day when one or two Eric Cantona masks appeared to slip past the Selhurst Park stewards, despite being officially banned as overly provocative, Manchester United could have done with the great man's imperious finishing. Ten years on from the infamous kung-fu kick on the same ground, they dominated all but the first 20 minutes of yesterday's game without managing to score, even after Crystal Palace had gone down to 10 men with the sending-off of the Greek midfielder Vassilis Lakis. From then on, the home side did not so much park the bus as a fleet of coaches in front of their goal.

United still found some space between them, especially in a tumultuous last 10 minutes, but lacked the composure and the finish for a seventh successive Premiership victory, even with what Palace's proud manager, Iain Dowie, called "all their big hitters" on the pitch. Perhaps some of them should have appeared earlier. Wayne Rooney, hitting better than anyone at present with six goals in his previous seven games, was kept on the substitutes' bench until the last 20 minutes, with Tuesday night's Champions' League tie away to Milan in mind, and Ruud van Nistelrooy is still short of match sharpness.

All in all, it was clearly a case of two points dropped in pursuit of Chelsea, as Ferguson acknowledged. "Palace said they were going to fight and they did," he agreed. "I don't think the sending-off was that important, because they were stuck in their own box anyway. It's a bad result for us. When you're going for the championship, you need to win these games and we should have won it."

When you are battling to stay out of the bottom three places, on the other hand, as has been Palace's sole ambition since winning the First Division play-off final last May, such games can be treated as a bonus, so Dowie was happy to accept one point, even though South-ampton had halved the gap on them by beating Tottenham. "I believe United are the best attacking side in the country and to keep a clean sheet was very pleasing." Asked if Palace might have attacked a little more, he made the reasonable point: "When you're down to 10 men and they've got Rooney, Ronaldo and Scholes on the pitch, believe me, discretion is the better part of valour."

The real significance of what tends to be remembered as Cantona's match is that the 1-1 draw ultimately prevented United completing a hat-trick of Premiership titles, finishing as they did one point behind Blackburn Rovers. After a similar result yesterday, it would be an achievement to keep Chelsea to such a margin now. United need to be concentrating - hard - on this week's cup ties against Milan and Southampton.

It took an adverse offside decision midway through the first half to prompt them into some sort of life. As Ryan Giggs swung in a free-kick from the left, the home defence moved out in line while Roy Keane sprinted through to collect the ball, clear on goal. The assistant referee's flag indicated that he had moved too quickly, to the fury of United's captain and manager, who were reprimanded for the force of their protests by the referee and fourth official respectively.

Suitably fired up, the hitherto subdued visitors created three opportunities in as many minutes; headers by Gabriel Heinze and Quinton Fortune were blocked, and the best one, by Van Nistelrooy, forced Gabor Kiraly to fall to his right and beat the ball away with a strong right hand.

After the otherwise disappointing Wayne Routledge had troubled Tim Howard with a driven cross early in the second half, Ferguson made his ambition clear with a double substitution that considerably increased his attacking options. Ronaldo and Paul Scholes replaced the more prosaic Fortune and Phil Neville, and there was almost a dividend straight away. Wes Brown, striding forward, found Van Nistelrooy for a swift swivel and shot that Kiraly did well to divert for a corner.

The unexpected bonus for United materialised with two yellow cards in the space of five minutes for Lakis. Neither of his tackles, on Ronaldo and then Keane, was particularly bad, but in the circumstances the second was unwise at best and left his side facing an even stiffer task. They had hardly reached the opposing penalty area since half-time, and the sight of Rooney stripping off to replace Alan Smith was even more daunting.

Rooney was soon in the thick of things, appealing for a penalty after his first run, then receiving the game's ninth yellow card for further dissent. A more legitimate intervention, his delicious touch to Van Nistelrooy, might have brought a goal but the striker could put no power into his shot. With seven minutes to play, a foul on Scholes offered a shooting chance 20 yards out, Giggs curling the free-kick wide. Two minutes after that, Brown nudged on Ferdinand's cross and Van Nistelrooy was off balance as he hooked over, and then Kiraly pushed out Rooney's fierce drive to Giggs, who could only jab on to the roof of the net.

Each of these misses was greeted with roars of relief, which were as nothing compared to the din at the final whistle. Neither the freezing rain nor news of Southampton's success could dampen Palace's sense of achievement against the odds. "Passion! Spirit! Determination!" cried the Tannoy announcer above the strains of "Glad All Over", the anthem normally reserved for Palace victories. In the bitter cold of SE25, it felt like one yesterday. There was no masking that.

Comments