By Matt Rowson
So. Right then. Here we are.
It's often struck me in the run-in towards the end of the season that the undignified scrap that tends to materialise between similarly reasonable-but-not-quite-brilliant sides in the chase for the play-offs focuses the attention to such an extent that once it's all done and dusted the games themselves tend to sneak up unheralded... and then suddenly, for two sides at any rate, the rug is pulled and the whole thing draws to a graceless close.
This season is different of course, with the occupants of the play-off positions a done deal for a week or two now. Nonetheless, there's a sense that the play-off semis have hurtled along in the season's wake, mindful of the impending World Cup. Very different from our last experience of the play-offs in 1999, when we were riding the crest of that wave. A little aggravating, too, that the annual, tediously misguided, half-interested comment suggesting that the team finishing third has somehow been diddled out of their rightful legacy by the play-offs has been absent this time around.
But a greater contrast still for our opponents, when one compares their last play-off experience to the context this season. I remember watching an awful Palace side collapse 5-0 at Wigan in November 2003, depths that our 1998-99 season never plumbed even if the Eagles' Dowie-inspired charge that followed mirrored our own successful campaign in many respects. This time, however, whilst we retain at least some of the nothingtoloseness of 1999 in the unanticipated nature of our place in the top six, the Palace squad have failed to live up to expectations this season, play-offs or otherwise. The pressure is all theirs, and this could tell both on and off the pitch if the tie turns against them.
One looks for portents, of course. Saturday's tie falls five years to the day since GT's last game for one thing. Is that a good omen or a bad one? Dunno. Six years to the day since that mental day in Middlesbrough which is fun to remember whatever it means.
On the pitch, perhaps we should be concerned that Palace have recorded two victories over us this season despite scarcely outplaying us in either fixture. Perhaps not, perhaps it's of no relevance whatsoever. After all, we lived with Palace in both games, and extended our form more conclusively across the season as the table illustrates - twelve more points out of the remaining fixtures.
Amidst this confusion of conflicting signals, perhaps the sharpest insight came from Pete at work. Only interested in football in the occasional, vague sort of way that everyone follows Casualty, and without affiliation, he nonetheless makes conversation.
"So your boys are in those play-offs, then?"
"Yup, that's right."
"What do you reckon?"
"We've got a shout, have to wait and see."
"S'alright, it's probably your turn."
That's OK then.
The Palace side that lines up on Saturday could closely resemble the side that we faced in the league encounter six weeks ago. Certainly Gabor Kiraly should line up in goal, with Julian Speroni on the bench.
At the back, some critical concerns remain largely unanswered. Left-back Danny Granville is approaching fitness but hasn't featured in the league this season and as such seems unlikely to be risked. This would appear to leave this slot to either the error-prone Gary Borrowdale or to Emmerson Boyce, as in our last encounter. Boyce is much the more accomplished player, but is naturally right-sided and the Palace team loses both balance and attacking impetus when he is fielded on the left.
Should this ploy be adopted, alternatives at right back are Danny Butterfield and Fitz Hall. Butterfield would be a popular choice but he too is short of match sharpness, the recent victory over Southampton his only start since October due to injury. Hall, on the other hand, looked thoroughly uncomfortable in a wide position during our last visit to Selhurst Park, and his pace may be better employed in the centre where neither Popovic nor Ward are quick; nor is either in form, the wobbliness of the former in particular transcending even Palace's general ease off the accelerator with the play-offs looming.
There's a similar lack of balance in midfield, although a calf injury that has curtailed Aki Riihilahti's recent involvement - he hasn't featured since our March encounter - does at least make selection in the centre of midfield clearer. The in-form Ben Watson should line up with Michael Hughes in what is a talented but perhaps not entirely natural pairing; neither is obviously suited to a holding role. Hughes, pushing 35, has also struggled with the intensity of the Division Two fixture list, and Ian Dowie will probably be hoping that Riihilahti is available for the second leg, although Mikele Leigertwood is also rated as an anchor man.
In wide positions, Jobi McAnuff proved himself a threat in our league encounter; messageboard rumour reports an ankle knock that should be shaken off by Saturday. On the opposite flank will either be Marco Reich, unpredictable in attack but a liability defensively, or the steadier contribution of Tom Soares.
Up front, Andy Johnson will almost certainly be paired with Clinton Morrison. Wayne Rooney's utterly depressing injury probably won't lead to Johnson's inclusion in the World Cup squad - Eriksson didn't play him in friendlies when he was scoring in the top flight, he's hardly likely to do so in a major tournament when playing in the second tier - but these games are as good a showcase as he could have hoped for at this late stage. Johnson was a threat before his early departure in March (following an incident which, incidentally, still has the more blinkered of the Palace faithful bleating at Ben Foster on messageboards) and will have to be watched again and Morrison is no slouch, even if his low-key spell at Birmingham cast doubt on his ability to play at the highest level. For this leg, both Dougie Freedman and Jon Macken could find places on the bench.
Much as Palace are the bookies' favourites for the play-offs there's a distinct lack of bullishness or conviction on the Eagles' messageboards, perhaps borne of watching their side flatter to deceive for most of the season. Whereas our campaign has been characterised by longish runs of good and less convincing form, Palace have flitted from impressive to uninterested from one game to the next. They are likely to need to maintain their form for longer if they are to navigate the play-offs.
But whilst our own side has had failings this season - options in key positions, perhaps too many defensive slip ups - a shortage of bloody-minded belief has never been one of them. A side tipped for relegation had plenty of opportunities to hide during the season, to allow themselves to coast in the knowledge that they were already surpassing expectation. They didn't take any of them. This is a side that has already pulled up trees, won eleven times on the road with only Reading scoring more goals away from home, come away with the points from a tense local derby, been outplayed by Wolves but refused to be beaten and dug in for a 3-1 victory, and most memorably demolished Sheffield United, then six games unbeaten, in a much-hyped game at Bramall Lane. This is a side that has coped equally well with expectation and the lack of it, teams that have come to attack, and teams that have come to defend. This is a side with steel and focus and belief.
This is a side that is more than capable of beating Crystal Palace.
It's our turn.
Bring it on.