Crystal Palace 2 Middlesbrough 2
Craig Hignett, the man being primed for the ejector seat when Juninho finally takes his place upon Teesside, gave Bryan Robson further cause for reflection at Selhurst Park last night. His equaliser midway through the first half spared his manager's blushes and consigned Crystal Palace to a daunting trip to the Riverside Stadium for the replay of this Coca- Cola Cup third-round tie.
Middlesbrough, for whom the countdown to ecstasy, Brazilian style, is well under way, were torn apart in the first 10 minutes by a Palace side eager to atone for their meagre league returns.
Without their first-choice strikers, Gareth Taylor and Doug Freedman, who were both cup-tied, Palace's attack had a youthful look, with 20-year- old Bruce Dyer partnering 17-year-old Leon McKenzie, whose father, Clinton, is the former European light-welterweight boxing champion.
The seconds were barely out when Palace took the lead. Dyer broke free down the left and his cross fell perfectly for McKenzie. The teenager, however, completely missed his kick, but David Hopkin, backing up, took full advantage.
Boro's response was muted, a shot from Jan Age Fjortoft being dealt with easily by Nigel Martyn. It took another goal by Palace and a string of near misses before Middlesbrough eventually began to justify their elevated status.
After nine minutes, Boro were two down. Richard Shaw played the ball up to Dyer who, with his back to goal, turned deftly and laid it into the path of Hopkin. His shot was firm, but it took a sizeable deflection off Phil Whelan before finding its way past Gary Walsh.
Palace could have had two more. First Ray Houghton, in an unlikely amount of space in the penalty area, failed to pick out the unmarked Dyer; then Dean Gordon got in on the act with the sort of venomous left-foot drive that is becoming his trademark. This time, however, the shot was well saved by Walsh.
It was Nick Barmby, after 15 minutes, who began the Boro revival, exchanging passes neatly with Fjortoft before shooting low and true across Martyn from the right-hand edge of the six-yard area. Five minutes later, Hignett burst through an advanced Palace defence and gave himself a clear run at Martyn. He made no mistake.
After such a pulsating opening, the game settled back briefly and revolved around midfield, where Houghton and Barmby were exerting their considerable influence on proceedings. But the first half ended suitably on a high, with Martyn tipping another effort from Hignett over the bar and Marc Edworthy shooting just wide for Palace.
The second half belonged to Palace. McKenzie had the ball in the net, only to be denied by an offside flag, and Dyer was frustrated on the line after an unbelievable goalmouth scramble. Middlesbrough held on, and must fancy their chances at home. By which time, of course, they may be playing to a whole new rhythm.
Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Martyn; Shaw, Roberts, Coleman; Edworthy, Hopkin, Houghton, Pitcher, Gordon; McKenzie, Dyer. Substitutes not used: Matthew, Rodger, Vincent.
Middlesbrough (3-4-2-1): Walsh; Pearson, Vickers, Whelan; Cox, Pollock, Mustoe, Morris; Barmby, Hignett (Moore, 75); Fjortoft (Hendrie, 89). Substitute not used: Liddle.
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
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