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Nationwide Division One, 7/4/01
Crystal Palace
By Matt Rowson

It's truly gripping stuff. What a way to spend a Thursday evening...drama, intrigue, everything. Forget Liverpool v Barcelona - if kick-offs in the freezing cold at Birmingham can be held up for Sky's adverts, then this nonsense can certainly wait half-an-hour for the critical update from Albert Square.

It's a gorgeously choreographed plot. Five suspects, all with motives, all with the opportunity, all to greater-or-lesser extents having lost it on the critical night in question. And Phil Mitchell, out for revenge. He knows. He's always known. The calm, authoritative "I'll sort it Jamie" (such dialogue!) wasn't delivered in the tone of someone in a quandary over the identity of his assailant. Nor is Phil Mitchell the sort of guy who would rest easy if he didn't have it, for want of a better word, "sorted".

The scriptwriters have changed his character before, of course. He hasn't always been the self-centred, sulking bully that the current storyline has demanded. At times he's been portrayed merely as a loveable oaf. Hence it's possible to find credibility in some characters' devotion to him. Contrary to the much-aired mantra of the drawn-out whodunit stretch, it's not true that "Evryone 'ates Phil Mitchull!".

Everyone does, however, hate Crystal Palace. Of all the wildebeest pathetically struggling to clamber over each other at the foot of the table, fewest tears in the football fraternity would greet the descent of the Eagles into the merciless muddy torrent of Division Two and a resumption of hostilities with Brighton next season. For starters, one trip to Selhurst Park per season is enough to inflict on anyone (and the attraction of none is yet another reason to get promoted).

Then there's the odious Alan Smith, feverishly refusing to be held accountable for Palace's current plight, disgusting even his club's own support. Only the reappointments of Steve Bruce and Mark McGhee to management positions temper the instinctive astonishment at the bog-eyed one's re-appearance on the front line.

Then there's the distinctly unappealing and misplaced sense of superiority that seems to afflict the fan-base. In addition to which - and this is maybe a little harsh - we all know someone like Matthew Simmons. Unless you know many Palace fans, this is what Palace have represented for several years now. Just one reason for which our own supporters' public conduct is so important, I guess.

Games against Palace are the stuff of brass tacks being driven into the back of your hand, of your head being held under water, of being forced to watch Daytime television. It's evil, it's cruel, it shouldn't really be allowed. As for Sasa Curcic....

And Palace are very much teetering on the brink, having left their mid-season burst of cup-inspired form well behind. Both the goals that Palace have scored in their last eight games have come from that most deadly of marksmen, Dean Austin. Whilst there's no denying that a service of balls coming in at ninety-degree angles covered in ice would be scant for any strikers, Alan Smith has made no secret of where he attributes blame. Rumours that Palace's new mascots, Peter and Alice Eagle, are being lined up to start up front on Saturday remain unconfirmed.

In goal for Palace will be Latvian Alex Kolinko, with cover provided by former Torquay keeper Matthew Gregg. In front of him, the favoured central pairing is the impressive Chinese stopper Fan Zhiyi alongside on-loan Arsenal stopper Matthew Upson. Fan is likely to miss what will almost certainly be a crucial run-in for Palace due to international duty with China. We must hope that Upson's performance follows the example set by another opponent to have turned down the Golden Boys earlier this week.

Belgian Kenny Verhoene, a tall but clumsy loan signing from Harelbeke, provides cover in the centre. Neil Ruddock is still around, but listed and out of favour, whilst the nomadic American Gregg Berhalter seems to have been on the books of half of the sides we've faced this season.

On the right, Dean Austin still comes in for criticism despite his relatively prolific form. The attacking Jamie Smith would be favoured in some quarters. On the left, the mullet-sporting Craig Harrison is one of few to have won the fans over since our last encounter, turning in some steady performances and keeping Andrew Frampton on the sidelines.

In midfield, Smith will be hoping that two pieces of recent business pay off by steeling up the centre of the park for the Eagles. David Hopkin has returned to the club where he enjoyed his most successful spell in 1997 after a less fruitful time in Yorkshire. Finn Aki Riihilahti, a £200k steal from Valerenga, scored the goal that looked like upsetting England's applecart at Anfield two weeks ago. Saturday should see his third game for the Eagles.

The long-serving Simon Rodger should play...his corners are a valuable part of Palace's armoury. Hayden Mullins will also be available having completed a two-match ban on Tuesday. Meanwhile, if Palace fans have cause for optimism it is a recent resurgence in form of Tommy Black, likely to be fielded behind the front pair. The blistering pace of Andrejs Rubins is less likely to feature, tempered as it is with the inability to withstand a passing exhalation, let alone a full-blooded Robbo bootering.

Other options include Wayne Carlisle, another quick winger suffering from the common lower-division inability to cross, and the left-sided and perhaps under-utilised Julian Gray. Scot Steven Thomson is missing with a calf problem, however, and Jamie Pollock is breaking bones in Birmingham's midfield having fallen out with Smith.

Up front, Clinton Morrison's headline form of earlier in the season appears to have deserted him, whilst Mickael Forssell and Dougie Freedman have been no more successful of late.

Six straight defeats preceded last Saturday's narrow win over Crewe. The narrowness of the gap that separates the Eagles from the dropzone will act as a painful reminder that the points are as important to them as they are to us.

This game won't be as open and pretty as Tuesday's gripping encounter. Palace may have trouble finding the onion bag, but they'll certainly be competitive in the middle of the park. We've beaten plenty better sides this season, however. We're more than capable of winning this one. Do that, and we can start thinking about Grimsby. Keep doing that, and we might find ourselves in the top six at the end of the season.

Sorted. As Phil would probably say.