Palace bereft of ideas

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace 0 Birmingham City 1

Crystal Palace's frustrations were summed up five minutes from the end at Selhurst Park on Saturday. In a rare moment of penetration by the home team, Simon Rodger crossed from the left to find Ray Houghton unmarked five yards from goal. The Palace captain had only to sidefoot home to secure a barely-deserved equaliser, but instead miscued horribly and the ball bobbled harmlessly into the air before being cleared to safety.

Poor Palace hardly put a foot right all afternoon. In the first half they failed to create a single chance of note as pass after pass went astray. In the second they showed more urgency and aggression, but rarely looked capable of opening up Birmingham's well- organised defence.

Palace are still in fifth place in the First Division with games in hand on all their play-off rivals. However, Steve Coppell, their caretaker manager, rightly warned that they will have to improve substantially on this lacklustre performance if they are to remain in contention.

In the Premiership and Nationwide League only Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic have scored more goals than Palace this season, but on this occasion Coppell's team seemed almost totally bereft of attacking ideas. The pace and strength of Bruce Dyer seemed their only effective weapon, but Michael Johnson's tenacious man marking of Palace's leading scorer ensured the threat was kept to a minimum.

Palace started to show some enterprise early in the second half, but the sending off after 58 minutes of Birmingham's Martin O'Connor, who had lashed out at Kevin Muscat, combined with an immediate double substitution by Coppell, appeared to disrupt what rhythm they had found. For the last half an hour Palace's only attacking ploy seemed to be a string of hopeful crosses from the right by Marc Edworthy.

Birmingham were no better than Palace, although they deserved credit for some solid defending in the second half. Their winning goal was well crafted, Paul Devlin crossing cleverly from the byline for Martin Grainger to head home at the far post. After flirting with relegation, Birmingham are heading for a mid-table finish - which on this evidence could be Palace's fate as well.

Goal: Grainger (40) 0-1

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Nash; Muscat (Rodger, 72), Edworthy, Roberts, Linighan, Gordon; Hopkin, Houghton, Veart (Freedman, 60); Dyer, McKenzie (Shipperley. 60).

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Bass, Wassall, Ablett, Johnson; Robinson, Hughes (Holland, 89), O'Connor, Grainger; Devlin (Tait, 60), Furlong (Francis, 70).

Referee: T Lunt (Ashton-in-Makerfield)

Bookings: Birmingham: Bass, Johnson.

Sending off: Birmingham: O'Connor.

Man of the Match: Johnson.

Attendance: 16,331.