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Saturday, March 5, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: March 8, 4:52 PM UK
Suffering at Selhurst

The Insider

Crystal Palace 0-0 Manchester United

The world's political leaders are slightly confused by just what a weapon on mass destruction looks like, but the law enforcement agencies on duty at Selhurst Park may just have solved their problem.

Don't bother looking for war heads or those giant chunky bombs you have seen on the TV when you search for WMD's; the way to identify a terrorist making his way to this game was much easier. Indeed, those who were treated as if they were a threat to world peace in this part of south London were presenting themselves in latex face masks.

Sporting a cheeky smirk and a stubbly beard, Eric Cantona impersonators were singled out as wanted men. The build-up to this game has been dominated by news that United fans would be marking their return to this impossible to reach stadium by paying tribute to their modern-day folk hero.

It was here, of course, a little more than 10 years ago, that Cantona launched his infamous attack on a Crystal Palace fan who opted to offer him some advice as he was sent off on an infamous dank night. The argument that is not a moment worth commemorating has been well aired, but the United fans' juvenile antics should have been viewed as little more than a bit of harmless fun.

With Palace officials threatening to eject anyone who sported the mask inside the ground, a recipe for trouble had been concocted, but amid the smiles and humour outside the ground, you didn't feel the threats would lead to genuine trouble. They certainly had enough police and stewards out trying to catch these dangerous men and their panic at what might happen seemed more than a little pathetic. It's only a mask, for heaven's sake!

It's so damn hard to find this horrible little ground that having finally got here after hours of traveling, United were unlikely to throw away all their good work in a desperate bid to pay tribute to their God. The songs worshiping the sadly departed Frenchman were ringing out from United fans long before kick-off, but most of the masks seemed to be kept in coat pockets once the action got underway.

With United boss Alex Ferguson employing a formation that was effectively a front three featuring Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Smith and Ryan Giggs, their desperation to claim all three points and pile more pressure on Chelsea was evident from the start.

Yet despite dominating for long periods and going close with efforts from Van Nistelrooy and Smith, the first half ended in stalemate and more than a little frustration for United after a dubious decision from Mark Clatterburg had them chastising the officials as they headed for the dressing room.

Roy Keane appeared to have timed his run through on goal to perfection after 20 minutes, but an offside flag stopped him in his tracks and inspired an eruption of anger from Ferguson and his captain. The Palace defence had pulled out en-mass and Keane appeared to come from behind the line to collect the ball, but the officials saw things differently.

All the United aggrieved continued to complain as they headed for the dressing room at half-time, yet at that point, the significance of this fixture was not so obvious. With Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney still to be unleashed, a United goal was bound to arrive, you suspected.

That suspicion increased ten fold by the end of this one-sided game, but as the minutes ticked away and United continued to spurn chances, the doubts began to creep in. By the end, Palace were down to 10 men after Vassilis Lakis got himself sent off, while United had around eight players up front, missing chances that became more glaring with each passing minute.

'Eric wouldn't have missed that, so Giggsy should get one of those masks,' was the less than valuable contribution of one Scottish hack as the Welshman wasted an opening late on, but a glum faced Ferguson was not in the mood for jokes as his side surrendered two crucial points.

'It's a bad result for us and we have given ourselves a real mountain to climb now,' accepted the United manager. 'We had the chances here today and the referee made some poor decisions, but we badly needed that win.

'I think we needed to win every game for the rest of this season, so this result has given Chelsea a massive chance to finish the job off. We will keep going, but it's up to them to make the mistakes now.'

Fergie's praise for Palace was refreshing from a manager who usually finds a variety of excuses for his team's failure. 'You have to give some credit to Palace because they fought for their lives,' he confirmed. 'At the end of the day, their goalkeeper has kept them in the game. They fought for their lives and good luck to them.

'It's hard to break teams down when they are playing with so many men behind the ball and we have come up against that on this occasion.'

I have nothing against Iain Dowie or Palace, but none of us in the press pack will shed a tear if they lose their Premiership lives this season. Getting the order to attend a game here is something akin to a death sentence as it means five hours of traveling and a miserable time when you reach your destination.

The press box provides a horrible view in the corner of the stand and pillars tend to get in the way of the action at the most crucial of moments. Putting those feeling aside, you have to respect the job being done by a manager who is on course to defy the odds and keep Palace in the Premiership.

'The talent United brought on to the pitch from the bench was incredible and we turned in a great display to hold them out,' stated Dowie. 'They have the best attacking options in the country and can hurt you from a variety of areas, so it is a great point for us.

'It was a case of getting the hard hats and flat jackets after the break. It was always going to be a backs to the wall effort and I think we earned that point. It could be a very big one for us.'

Iain Dowie looked happy, but Soccernet's Insider was now feeling as gloomy as Sir Alex as he finished this report. At least the United boss had a nice comfortable coach to head home in, while I'm left to battle for three hours on London's crumbling transport system.

It's a tough life being a football hack.

MAN OF THE MATCH - ROY KEANE

On a day when United took time to find their feet, the rejuvenated Keane was at his powerful best.

MASK WATCH - There were plenty of latex Cantona impersonators outside the ground, but only a few dared to face the wrath of a Palace security official inside the stadium. None seemed to be ejected for their 'crime'.

PRESS BOX VIEW - Awful. They only reason they put the press in this corner of the stand is because they couldn't justify selling these seats to the general public. If my match report missed something, blame the dirty pillar obscuring my view.

FOOD WATCH - The hot drink on offer was appreciated, while the McDonalds picked up en-route meant half time snacks were not advisable.

UNITED VERDICT: Finishing second is their only objective in the Premiership from here and their season could be in tatters unless they leave Milan victorious on Tuesday night.

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