Liverpool create slender semi-final advantage

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by Guy Hodgson

Liverpool 1

Crystal Palace 0

Liverpool, who have been ousted from the Coca-Cola Cup at Selhurst Park in the last two seasons, must run the gauntlet of south London again if they are to get to Wembley. They have an advantage, but it is a slender one.

On a night of home frustration that mounted by the second, the four-times winners had to wait beyond normal time before they gained anything tangible to take into next Wednesday's semi-final, second leg. "The game plan worked for 90 minutes," Alan Smith, the Palace manager, said, his voice weary with disappointment. "I just didn't get injury time right."

The goal was as scrappy in execution as the match itself. Ian Rush aimed at but missed Steve McManaman's cross but his work had the virtue of distracting the defence and the ball fell into Robbie Fowler's path. Even then the striker's right-foot shot was not entirely true but it bobbled and bounced beyond Nigel Martyn.

As the ball crossed the line, the Palace players adopted various postures of despair, underlining the injustice of the punishment their defending barely deserved. Liverpool had the majority of the possession but Palace, after riding their initial luck, gained confidence as the night wore on and hit the crossbar through John Salako. Even so, the tie is well balanced.

"We'd have had to get a goal to win the tie no matter what happened," Smith added. "It just means we've got to get two. With Chris Armstrong in the team, and possibly Ricky Newman, I honestly think we might do it."

Liverpool, beaten most recently in the competition by Palace and Wimbledon, had an incentive to put the tie beyond doubt at Anfield and began like wasps swarming round a jampot. They were given a scare when David James had to save at Salako's feet after six minutes but then persistently bore down on the Palace defence, particularly on the left with Mark Walters.

Rob Jones, Jamie Redknapp and Walters all threatened although it was Rush, two goals short of Geoff Hurst's record of 49 goals in the competition, who came closest before the interval with a clever flick of his right heel that dipped just below the bar and required a backwards and upwards leap from Martyn to tip the ball over.

This supremacy was challenged seconds from half-time by Salako's twisting run from the right that culminated with a deflected shot against the bar. The visitors' threat had been signalled and set the tone for the second half.

Liverpool had the possession, Palace the advantage of space in the counter- attack and the Premiership strugglers almost grasped it with two headers from Andy Preece in the 46th and 48th minutes. Darren Pitcher, too, was fractions away from getting to Salako's cross at the far post immediately afterwards. A flurry of shots from Fowler and Redknapp, both brilliantly saved by Martyn, suggested Liverpool might get a goal although their supporters had long since given up on one before Fowler struck. It was his 24th of the season.

"I'm hiding my disappointment," Smith said. "But take it from me, losing 1-0 after 92 minutes at Anfield is a lot better than being beaten 6-1 at home to Liverpool on the opening day of the season." No one expects such a clear-cut result next week.

Liverpool (5-3-2): James; R Jones, Scales, Ruddock, Babb, Walters; McManaman, Redknapp, Barnes; Fowler, Rush. Substitutes not used: Thomas, Bjrnebye, Stensgaard (gk).

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martin; Humphries, Shaw, Patterson, Coleman; Matthew, Southgate, Pitcher, Gordon; Preece, Salako. Substitutes not used: Dyer, Bowry, Wilmot (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).