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Five Aside

AJ leads the way

Criticising a player who is has embarked on a one man mission to keep Crystal Palace in the Premiership seems a little harsh, but it has been impossible to ignore the claims that striker Andrew Johnson has developed something of a balance problem.

After firing a clutch of goals in English football's top flight, receiving recognition with his national team and being included in the shortlist for the prestigious PFA Player of the Year award, this has truly been a defining moment in Johnson's career.

However, with 10 of his 18 Premiership goals coming courtesy of penalties and eight of those spot kicks being awarded after fouls on Johnson himself, the accusations being thrown at this no-nonsense forward has been inevitable. Put simply, he has been accused of being a diver.

Like the England rugby team in the days when kicker-supreme Johnny Wilkinson was kicking penalties from all angles, the temptation to lump the ball into the corners and trying to win penalties by fair or foul means was too much to resist at times. Such jibes rile manager Iain Dowie, but he is not the type to lose sleep over them.

Palace fans will be quick to tell you all those spot kicks have been won fair and square, though more than a few managers have suggested otherwise and Soccernet's Insider felt the need to visit Selhurst Park to investigate these claims. The case for the prosecution and the defence would be listened to with equal diligence.

The early signs were not good for Johnson. With just two minutes on the clock, the Palace No.8 was in a familiar position, sprawling on the turf after Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard bumped into him. As the challenge occurred outside the box, he was denied another chance to prove he can take a good penalty.

What can never be questioned is Johnson's impressive work rate, a drive that sees him cover every inch of grass on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes. Leading the line alone, he is the link man and goal threat in chief and after 34 minutes, proved his worth once again with a clinically finished goal.

Directing Wayne Routledge's misdirected shot towards goal was never going to be easy, but Johnson proved himself up to the job as he headed past Jerzy Dudek to spark wild scenes of celebrations around Selhurst Park. It was his eighth Premiership goal of 2005 and only his third from open play.

If the jury passed a verdict on the accusations laid at Johnson's door as the half-time whistle blew, it would have been a unanimous 'Not Guilty' decision as he has delivered an impressive display, full of energy and endeavour. He started the second 45 minutes in fine style as well, bursting down the right flank and handing Tom Soares the opportunity to double the Eagles' lead, only for the chance to go astray.

Those who claim Palace are little more than a long ball team whose reliance on Johnson is overbearing were proved wrong on this balmy afternoon at Selhurst Park. They lack quality to pass teams off the park, that much was obvious, but it doesn't stop them trying and they have not resorted to Blackburn-style violent tactics in their hour of need either.

Johnson's lack of height means launching the ball long would not bring rewards, so Dowie is doing the best with what he has and the likes of Michael Hughes and Wayne Routledge turned in all-action performances as they pushed to secure three vital points.

The Palace cause was helped by a miserable performance from Liverpool. Soccernet's Insider was in attendance as they took part in a thrilling game against Tottenham last weekend, yet this was a very different team and they barely did justice to the shirts they were wearing.

While manager Rafa Benitez had Wednesday's Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in mind as he picked a starting line-up featuring John Welsh and Anthony Le Tallac, they should still have performed with more gusto than they did.

After all, Everton had dropped two crucial home points against Birmingham in the early kick-off so their ambition of landing a top four finish in the Premiership was very much alive as this game got underway. After failing to get a single shot on target until mid-way through the second half, their travelling fans had a right to voice their discontent.

Steven Gerrard had two chances to snatch a leveller late on as first his header was saved by Gabor Kiraly, before his curling shot brought a fine save out of the Palace keeper. A goal would have flattered Liverpool on a day when they rarely looked like moving up the gears.

'It was a fantastic result,' stated Dowie, speaking quicker than most humans could manage. 'We restricted them to one really good chance and when you look at the quality they have on the pitch, it was a decent effort. Anyone who saw our performance today will realise we are not a long ball team. We keep it down, try to pass it and you can see how far we have come in the last few months.'

And on the Johnson's much talked about 'diving' allegations. 'I don't give a monkey what you people write about him,' stated the Palace boss. 'Andy is no diver, he is a quality forward, scored a great goal to win another game for us and we should be talking about what he does well. Give the lad a break for a change.'

With an away record to be ashamed of, Liverpool don't deserve to finish in the top four this season a dishevelled Benitez looked close to tears as he faced up to his latest failure. 'I'm angry, but there is nothing I can do now,' he conceded. 'We need to keep our heads up and think about the next game. I cannot worry about this game or performance.

'I'm very disappointed, for sure, but how can I explain our away performances. We know that we are playing well at home, but the same has not happened on the road. You cannot say we were looking at the Chelsea game on Wednesday. We just couldn't play. I don't know why.'

Rumour has it that Benitez is keen to add Andy Johnson to his ranks for next season and he did hopes of a move to Anfield no harm by producing an all-action display which put his potential team-mates to shame.

Those who wanted our subject in chief to be hung, drawn a quartered by Soccernet's Insider may be disappointed as Johnson did nothing in this sparkling Palace win to be convicted of being a cheat.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Hughes

It takes a special performance to outshine Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard in the midfield and Palace warhorse Hughes deserves the plaudits after a driving display.

FOOD WATCH: The sandwiches didn't look too appetising, but they were still scoffed in a matter of seconds by the press pack.

FACE IN THE PRESS BOX: Gordon Strachan was working as a radio pundit and you have to see him in the flesh to appreciate how remarkably small he is.

INJURY NOTE: Milan Baros is a doubt for Wednesday night's Champions League showdown with Chelsea after limping out of this game.

JOHNSON VERDICT: On this evidence, the darling of the Palace faithful is a saint and not a sinner. Attending another game may have produced a different outcome, yet he is absolved of the charges against him after an impressive display.

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