United have to draw on Pallister

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Crystal Palace 2

Manchester United 2

(aet; score at 90 mins 1-1)

Gary Pallister tends to score goals with marginally greater frequency than he attracts yellow cards. The referee had occasion to record the name of Manchester United's defender on both counts yesterday, a fact which lends substance to the theory that Villa Park witnessed a semi-final that had everything.

Everything, alas, including a sickening reminder that violence between "rival" supporters cannot be consigned to history. The death of a Crystal Palace fan will be described as "football-related", yet on the pitch and in the stands there was a surprising absence of acrimony, with the 39,000 crowd absorbed in a pulsating match.

Despite taking the lead for the second time at the start of the additional half-hour, Palace's vision of Wembley blurred again when Pallister rose to head a second, surprisingly soft equaliser for United. The sides must reconvene at Villa Park on Wed-nesday for the right to face Everton in next month's final.

In the semi-final analysis, honour was satisfied. Not for the first time in knock-out football this season, Palace belied their lowly Premiership status. For much of the first half, Alan Smith's team looked capable of avenging their defeat in the 1990 final. However, Old Trafford's half of the so-called dream ticket proved less susceptible to shredding than had Tottenham's, the holders responding to adversity with the resilience that hauled them back from the brink at the same stage a year ago.

This time they did not leave it quite so late. But just as Mark Hughes' last-gasp goal against Oldham offered a lifeline which they exploited in the replay, so the Double winners must be confident of finishing off their rivals.

The prospect of the underdogs prevailing receded considerably with the news that Nigel Martyn may miss his first match in three years. The Palace goalkeeper needed X-rays on his left hand after taking the force of David Beckham's boot as early as the second minute.

Moreover, United's captain Steve Bruce will be available once more, although yesterday they missed the element of surprise provided by Eric Cantona rather more than the leadership of Pallister's suspended partner.

It will be a source of concern to Alex Ferguson that United failed to score from open play in the course of two hours' action, both their goals stemming from set-pieces. Palace were no slouches themselves from dead- ball situations, while the front pairing of Iain Dowie and Chris Armstrong was a constant threat.

The clubs' previous meeting on 25 January had proved fateful for Cantona and, it seems increasingly likely, for United's prospects of retaining their title. For long spells during the first half, it appeared they would again have cause to curse Palace, who took advantage of their opponents' somewhat makeshift starting line-up.

United began with Lee Sharpe in an unfamiliar central role and Brian McClair floating between midfield and attack, anomalies which Ferguson addressed at half-time. By then, however, Palace had seized a 33rd-minute lead after Peter Schmeichel failed to clear a long throw by John Salako.

When the ball was returned from the far side by Armstrong, Dowie headed home his fourth goal in five Cup outings since arriving from Southampton. Armstrong, slicing wide when put clear moments later, and Dowie, with a misdirected free header from a cross by the tireless Ray Houghton, both missed chances to give Palace a two-goal cushion.

The latter miss proved especially costly, coming five minutes before United's 69th-minute breakthrough. Gareth Southgate's foul on Paul Ince gave Denis Irwin the shooting chance he relishes from 22 yards out. The full-back's free-kick clipped the head of Houghton, his Republic of Ireland colleague, on its way to finding a gap between Martyn's outstretched hand and the angle of post and bar.

The goal was no less than United deserved, both Ryan Giggs and Sharpe having forced fine saves from Martyn as the pressure on Palace mounted. Yet Armstrong's pace on the break meant United were always living on their nerves, and with greater accuracy, the striker might have negated the need for extra time after picking up Houghton's through-ball in the 73rd minute.

Palace's ability to translate deep defence into counter-attack reaped a dividend 65 seconds into the additonal period. No sooner had McClair fired wide from Sharpe's cross than Southgate's pass found Armstrong racing between Irwin and Roy Keane. From 10 yards out he mis-kicked, but the ball cleared Schmeichel to give Armstrong his fifth goal in this year's competition.

Pallister restored United's grip on the trophy five minutes later, with a glancing header from Gary Neville's throw-in to the near post. His third goal of the season means United remain undefeated in semi-finals at Villa Park. But then again, from an admittedly smaller number of visits, so do Palace.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Patterson, Young, Shaw, Coleman (Gordon, h-t); Houghton, Southgate, Pitcher, Salako; Armstrong, Dowie. Substitutes not used: Cox, Wilmot (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Keane, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham (Butt, 49), Ince, Sharp, Giggs; McClair, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Scholes, Walsh (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Photograph, page 30

Football, pages 30 and 31

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