Palace show true grit to triumph
Dougie Freedman was a frustrated absentee the last time Crystal Palace made it to Wembley, the striker a suspended spectator for the 1997 play-off final after a yellow card tempered his match-winning brace against Wolves in the semis. Freedman had taken Palace to the brink of the Premier League - a David Hopkin goal would complete their return to the top flight - but his decisive contribution was to prove the last of his first spell at the club.
Now sitting in the Palace dugout as manager, the 37-year-old can begin to entertain the idea of playing a more significant role in a return to Wembley after experiencing last-four joy once again in a 1-0 Carling Cup first-leg victory over Cardiff. Talk on the terrace began immediately of which of the other semi-finalists - Liverpool and Manchester City - would be a preferred opponent, but history should teach Freedman and Eagles supporters to be cautious in their sanguinity. There have been three semi-final exits in this competition for Palace over the past 18 years, with the most recent also proving the most painful: their elimination by Liverpool in 2001 came after a dream 2-1 first-leg victory over the Reds at Selhurst Park had raised hopes.
Victory against Cardiff was nonetheless hugely impressive. While not a scalp of the magnitude of their victory over Manchester United, Palace were certainly conferred the pre-match 'underdog' tag, with Malky Mackay's Cardiff currently challenging in the upper echelons of the Championship and the Eagles squad decimated with a virus that saw a near-unrecognisable team exit the FA Cup at the hands of Derby on Saturday.
The build-up had centred on just how many of Freedman's players would make it from their sick beds to the Selhurst Park pitch and those in the press box with Welsh leanings were subsequently left bemused by the strength of Palace's starting line-up . The more disbelieving Bluebirds were crying 'conspiracy' when the hosts announced only two major absences, talented young pair Sean Scannell and Nathan Clyne, who both starred in the enthralling quarter-final victory over United at Old Trafford.
Asked if he was shocked by Palace's XI, Mackay jibed: "No, not at all. I had a cough at the weekend as well." However, Freedman was adamant that it had been touch-and-go whether a number of his players would start and insisted their efforts to grind out a one-goal win deserved the utmost respect.
"Full credit to the guys, who answered the questions we asked of them. At 5 o'clock tonight I decided to look them in the eye and ask them if they are prepared to put their body on the line for the club. The resounding answer was yes. It was about a real determination - we showed a lot of character to keep that clean sheet."
Earlier this season, it was Cardiff who ended Palace's impressive run of ten hours without conceding a goal, but a defensive masterclass from the hosts prevented a repeat of that reverse in Wales. And it was fitting that one of Palace's back-four was the match-winner, centre-back Anthony Gardner turning in Darren Ambrose's free-kick just before half-time. Gardner suffered the disappointment of being an unused substitute when Spurs lost to Blackburn in the 2002 League Cup final and he seemed determined to secure another shot at a showpiece with a fine display alongside captain Paddy McCarthy.
The hosts set out to play on the counter-attack and when they did go on the offensive, always looked dangerous - with teen prodigy Wilfried Zaha likely to be occupying the nightmares of Cardiff's left and right full-backs tonight. The youngster's threat did not go unnoticed by his skipper, with McCarthy later gushing: "He can go as far as he wants in the game, he's probably the most naturally gifted individual I've come across in my career."
Palace were made to defend plenty of corners and long throw-ins, usually a source of joy for a Cardiff side boasting the arrow-like left foot of Peter Whittingham and arrow-like arms of Aron Gunnarsson. But the Eagles fought valiantly to repel the Bluebirds skyward assault, the only breach coming when Kenny Miller had the ball in the net in the second half, only for referee Mike Dean to controversially rule it out for an infringement on Julian Speroni. While Freedman hailed his goalkeeper as "the best in the division" for his impressive overall showing, Mackay lamented that particular decision - labelling it "quite unbelievable" and "a howler".
Palace held on through a nerve-jangling four minutes of stoppage time, and the 1-0 scoreline keeps the tie evenly poised ahead of the second leg in Cardiff. But after celebrating to the sounds of 'Glad All Over' with his players and the Selhurst Park faithful at the final whistle, Freedman admitted he would be watching Wednesday night's other semi-final with interest, the Palace boss preferring optimism to pragmatism in the wake of one of the club's most memorable nights in recent history.
"I'd have been happy to take anything to Cardiff. We'll be asked a lot of questions by a very good side and a very good manager but I feel that we've got enough in the locker to keep a clean sheet... I honestly believe the fans deserve better than they've had over the past few years."
The £1 million bounty and trip to Wembley that comes with a place in the final would certainly be a good start.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wilfried Zaha. Just as he did at Old Trafford, Zaha thrived playing in the television spotlight - his fearless running and effective flicks - and, at one point, brave piece of defending that saw him elude two Cardiff players on the edge of his own area - made him a delight to watch. With three weeks left of the January transfer window remaining, Palace will surely face a real fight to hold onto him. Special mention must also go to defensive pairing Gardner and McCarthy.
CRYSTAL PALACE VERDICT: Palace put in a performance akin to that against Manchester United, full of heart, grit and determination. They will need more of same in the second leg against a Cardiff team fired up for revenge.
CARDIFF CITY VERDICT: The slick, passing football that has helped propel Cardiff to the upper reaches of the Championship this season was only apparent in glimpses. The neat exchanges were too scarce and, despite much pressing, particularly in the second half, Mackay's side were thwarted time and again, their opponents' resolute defending exemplified by a late Sean Scannell block.
CRYSTAL CHEER: On my first visit to Selhurst Park, I was left applauding Crystal Palace for persevering with a pre-match and half-time cheerleading show, a real throwback to the start of the Premier League era, when pom-pom-inspired entertainment was all the rage. Inspirational stuff for players and fans.