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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 31/03/06, 7.45pm
Crystal Palace
A Momentary Lapse of Reason
By Matt Rowson

You gotta love the G14. No, really. It's not often that life so comfortably fits into the "goodies versus baddies" boxes that childhood, Hollywood and George Dubya encourage. It's so very rare that it's impossible to identify a plausible, defensible "on the other hand", but surely even fans of United, Arsenal, Milan and the others can't love this faceless, bloodsucking entity. Not sure who the corresponding "goodies" are, mind, but it's nice (if a little wearying) to have something to throw bricks at without any guilt or reservation.

There are plenty of other clubs, organisations, players, people, that are worthy of all manner of bile most of the time. Manchester United, for example, are no less obnoxious for being not quite as successful... but Wayne Rooney is fabulous. The Daily Mail does at least identify people not to get caught in unnecessary conversation with. Chris Kamara probably cooks a decent quiche or something.

Last season, I even found myself briefly experiencing something close to affection for Crystal Palace. It only happened once, it might have been in January (maybe a Thursday?), but didn't last long. And certainly this season the tawdry, archetypical Crystal Palace performance that we were treated to on New Year's Eve blew any such lingering sentiment out of the water. With that game acutely in the memory, I can't have been the only Watford fan who raised an eyebrow at Ian Dowie's latest comment on diving (tomorrow's headline: "Why can't woodland dwellers use public conveniences?" demands Bear). It could be - and has been - suggested that the antics of Johnson and Morrison are more along the lines of making the most of any contact rather than complete fiction Sasa Curcic stylee, but for me that's a flimsy distinction. It's still about deception, it's still cowardly and it's still shit. My temptation would be to reason that if Andy Johnson's going to go down anyway I might as well kick him up the arse as try to win the ball. But then, admittedly, I'd need to catch him first.

And we haven't even been to Selhurst Park in two and a half years. My, doesn't time fly. Still, no doubt we'll be able to enjoy the extensive renovations to the Arthur Wait stand that must have been introduced to justify 30 for a ticket (for f***'s sake!). Although one can't help but wonder how much premium would be required to pay for enough turnstile operators to facilitate getting into the ground without queuing - an issue according to our Official Site. Labour must be expensive in Croydon... in any event, Simon Jordan's monologues on All That's Wrong With The Game do rather lack credibility.

That aside, I can't have been the only one who expected Palace to stroll the division this season. That they haven't appears to be down to the combination of a lack of consistency, the ageing of a couple of key figures, a lopsided squad lacking left sided cover in particular and, perhaps not unrelated, a surprisingly brittle defence. Nonetheless, the obvious quality in the side means it was no real surprise to see the Eagles recover from their below par start to the season.

In Gabor Kiraly, Palace have arguably the best goalkeeper in the division; he reportedly prevented Saturday's disappointing reverse at Pride Park from reaching catastrophic levels. Based on what little I've seen of Argentine Julian Speroni they also have one of the worst; he has yet to keep a clean sheet in a league game for Palace, albeit most of his starts came last season.

At the back, the long-term absence of left back Danny Granville seems to have had a destabilising effect on the entire back four. Granville hardly set the world alight in the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship), but like us the Eagles have suffered from the world shortage of left backs with youngster Gary Borrowdale not really convincing ("He's useless. FFS, let the guy know the truth. He is a liability" being one messageboard verdict). Granville has had a couple of reserve run-outs (most recently against our stiffs earlier this week) but having been out since August is probably looking at a place on the bench at best. Mikele Leigertwood has been filling in here; he's rated as the long-term midfield anchor man but has struggled in an unnatural position, often without much protection from the left of midfield. Bluntly, we could do with Chris Eagles getting bothered again on Friday.

No such concerns for Palace on the right, where former Luton man Emmerson Boyce is a contender for Palace's "player of the year" award. It has been suggested that he might be a more practical stop-gap on the left with Fitz Hall able to play right back, but this would cost Palace much of Boyce's attacking effectiveness, just as we've seen James Chambers hampered when playing on his weaker side. Danny Butterfield, another possibility at right back, has been out since October.

In the centre, the form of encumbent pairing Fitz Hall and Darren Ward has been patchy, with several accounts pointing towards the need to keep an eye on what's going on down their left as a contributing factor. The re-introduction of Australian Tony Popovic would appear to be favoured, albeit he wasn't overly popular when in the team; Ward's particularly shaky form and Hall providing the only pace of the three to combat Marlon King suggests that the ex-Hornet would be most likely to give way. Mark Hudson, one of several of Dowie's former Oldham charges in the ranks, would be another option.

In midfield, the lack of wide options has led to a very unbalanced four featuring three central players and one right winger with someone occasionally wandering over to the left flank to see what was going on at Pride Park. However Marco Reich's goal against our stiffs this week is taken as confirming his latest return from injury after a month out. Both he and Jobi McAnuff are hence likely to start; both are right-footed, but either can play on the left... one noted distinction between the two that McAnuff does provide some cover to his full back defensively. Wayne Andrews (tra-la-la) is now thought of as a winger, when he's thought of at all, and so might also be an option.

In the middle it's probably two from the three that started at Derby; the iconic Aki Riihilahti has been reported as being off-form, but it's generally acknowledged that Palace's midfield fell apart on his withdrawal on Saturday. Michael Hughes, now 34, seems perhaps the most likely to drop to the bench; he struggles with the full schedule now and is described as a "20 minute player", his star on the wane but still a favourite of Dowie's. This would leave Ben Watson to partner Riihilahti, and deliver most of the dead balls. Current boo-boy Tom Soares has been on the bench.

Up front the considerable threat (and other attributes) of Andy Johnson and Clinton Morrison, as good a pair of strikers as you'll find in the division (even Bramall Lane...) although doubts remain over whether they really compliment each other, a genuine target man high on many wanted lists. Jon Macken is another to have returned from injury in the reserves, although Dougie Freedman's place on the bench seems assured.

As our automatic promotion hopes were severely dented by events in Watford and Sheffield, Palace's were virtually written off in Derby. Nonetheless this will obviously be a tough game and was always the stand-out fixture in our run-in. Much as the Reading game focused attention after our own hiccup against Derby at the start of the month, the timing of this one is quite convenient in that regard. You'd certainly fancy us to put in a performance in this one, as we have away from home to all of the genuinely top sides in the division, more than you would if we were due to play Brighton at home, say. And coming on the Friday, were we to earn three points the pressure would be very much back on Colin's mob by Saturday afternoon.

Bring it on.