Palace omens temper Liverpool expectations

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The Independent Online
When the draw for the semi- finals of the Coca-Cola Cup was made a month ago, there was a presumption that was hard to fault. Namely, no matter who Liverpool played, they would be going to Wembley.

At the time they were racing off the back of a win over Arsenal in the quarter-finals and a run in the Premiership that made an assault on the championship conceivable. Over two legs, particularly when the potential opponents were taken into consideration, the evidence pointed in one direction.

A month on, however, and doubts have increased as the days have got longer. Liverpool have scored just five times in nine games while their opponents, Crystal Palace, who could not have hit the target if it had been printed on the chests on some of their less desirable supporters, are among the goals again, albeit sporadically in the League. Certainly they no longer look the lame turkeys of the Christmas period.

Estimates have been redrawn on Merseyside and the fact that Liverpool have gone out of the competition at Selhurst Park twice in the last two seasons (against Palace in 1993 and Wimbledon last season) has gained a dark relevance. "We'll be happy with a win from the first leg," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said, echoing the bursting bubbles of optimism of his supporters.

"Of course you hope to win by a lot of goals but you can't throw caution completely to the wind, and as long as we take a lead to Selhurst Park I'll be satisfied. It'll mean the onus will be on them to attack us."

Evans, who is likely to recall Jamie Redknapp for Michael Thomas, has partly attributed the lack of goals to adjusting to playing with three centre backs. Opponents have become wiser to it while Liverpool, now the novelty value has worn off, have struggled to take it further. In particular, the manager feels the full-backs, Rob Jones and Stig Inge Bjrnebye, have not fully exploited their opportunities on the flanks.

"We're working on the system, developing it," he said. "Once one or two go in we'll be all right. It's nothing to panic about. We're getting into positions, and all it will take is a slight change in fortune and we might be scoring three or four."

Palace, too, have an adjustment of their own as their first-choice strikers, Chris Armstrong and Iain Dowie, are suspended. This might encourage a more defensive formation, which would match the mood of their manager, Alan Smith, who has refused his players permission to speak to the Press.

"We want action rather than words," he said. "Some players are talking their way into situations rather than out of them. Now they must let their boots do the talking. It is best we concentrate on our football.

"I don't talk behind players backs. We are all in this together. There is no split at Crystal Palace. This is an exciting period, but we brought added pressure on ourselves by our home defeat against Coventry.

"As a group we are not happy with that performance. The players know the score. They came to see me afterwards, not the other way round."

Smith's mind will have been concentrated further by yesterday's dismissal of Phil Neal by Coventry. That means Palace are the only club in the Premiership's bottom seven not to have changed their manager this season.

The next fortnight, in which they meet Liverpool twice, Watford in the FA Cup and Arsenal in the Premiership, could decide his future.

"They represent probably the toughest four games Palace have ever had," Smith said.

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