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For supporters of both Crystal Palace and Cardiff City, 2009/10 has been a season that has taken a turn for the strange. Both clubs are in mortal peril. Crystal Palace are in administration and the Championship relegation places following the ten point deduction that comes with entering it, whilst Cardiff City still haven’t seen off the tax man and still face a winding up petition. However, both clubs could find routes off the hook. A place in the Premier League – certainly not an unreasonable proposition, considering that they are in fourth place in the table and heading for the play-offs at the end of the season – is still possible for Cardiff City, and this may be a route out of the crippling debt that they are currently burdened with.
If that seems a contradictory state of affairs, it’s not quite as crazy as what has been going on at Crystal Palace. The club’s entry dropped them into a relegation zone like a stone into a pond. This put them up for sale, and amongst the most serious interest in buying the club is reported to have come from the noted hip hop producer, fashion designer and (probably) wearer of diamonds, Sean “Puff Daddy or P-Diddy, Depending Upon How Old You Are” Combs. The likelihood of Palace taking to the pitch wearing fur-lined and diamond-studded shirts and replacing “Glad All Over” with “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”, however, still remains slight for now – and will possibly become more so if they drop into League One this season.
The departure of Neil Warnock for Queens Park Rangers at the start of this month has hit Palace hard. They beat Sheffield United in their first match under his replacement, Paul Hart, but have failed to win in the league since then. When they first entered into administration, one of the principle concerns of their supporters was the affect that the ten point deduction would have on their bid to get into the Championship play-offs. Now, they are in a relegation battle and, with Scunthorpe United having picked up six points from their last two matches, it is starting to look like a losing one. Three points against Cardiff are a a necessity for them this afternoon.
It only takes four minutes for Cardiff to edge in front. With their first corner, Guy Whittingham drives the ball across low, Stephen MacPhail back-heels the ball on and Gabor Gyepes drives the ball into the corner of the net. The Crystal Palace defence were nowhere to be seen. It’s a shock to the system, but they rally reasonably well and after twenty minutes a looping cross from the right sees Clint Hill’s header arc over the Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall and away off the top of the crossbar. Shortly afterwards, Darren Ambrose lobs just over, and then has a volley from an angle that is well parried by Marshall. Cardiff, however, remain a danger on the break and Michael Chopra sends Kelvin Etuhu clear, but he takes a touch too many and his shot is blocked by Julian Speroni. At half-time, Cardiff have the lead, but there hasn’t been much between the two teams.
Early in the second half, Chris Burke fires a warning shot with a twenty yard volley that dips just over Speroni’s crossbar, but Palace dominate the early stages of the second half and have what looks like a clear penalty turned down when Stern John is pulled down as he attempts to volley a penalty from the right hand side. They don’t have to wait particularly long for an equaliser. Another corner from the right hand side from Ambrose is met by Clint Hill, and he jumps the highest and heads the ball into the corner of the net to level things up. Any optimism that Palace might have that they can go on to win the match, however, only lasts for nine minutes. Mark Kennedy slings in a deep cross from the left hand side, Paul Quinn heads the ball down and Chris Burke, whose volley at the start of the half would have been one of the goals of the season had it dropped a couple of feet lower, gets his angles right this time and drives the ball wide of Speroni and in.
Palace throw players forward in the search for an equaliser, but it feels rather as if Cardiff know that there has been an element of fortune about the lead that they hold and they don’t seem inclined to take any risks in order to throw it away. At full-time, there is the usual cacophony of boos that meet a home defeat, but they are reserved for the officials over the John penalty incident. Ultimately, though, Palace had enough chances to have won the game this afternoon and paid for this and for the slack defending that cost them such an early goal. Cardiff stay in fourth place in the table, and if the league table were to be the same at the end of the season would be playing Swansea City in the play-off semi-finals. Whether they will still be here by then, however, still remains in the balance, however unlikely that may seem on the face of things.
For Crystal Palace, though, the minor annoyance of a ten point deduction for entering into administration has suddenly become a panic. As this is the lunchtime kick-off on Saturday, they have the rest of the afternoon to worry about what the rest of the division is up to and the news, for Saturday at least, is good. Only Bristol City and Derby County in the bottom half of the table go on to win. The good news comes to a grinding halt on Sunday, however, when Scunthorpe United’s third win in eight days – 1-0 at Sheffield United – pulls them clear of the relegation places. Palace are now four points below Watford, having played a game more and, while Watford may have been in freefall since the new year, Palace’s form doesn’t seem to be anything to write home about either. It seems likely that they will need a minimum of three or four wins from their remaining seven matches if they are to avoid dropping into the lower divisions of the Football League for the first time since 1997, and the frustrating thing for their supporters is that, on the basis of today’s performance, they have the players to be able to manage that sort of run-in, but seem to be completely devoid of the confidence at present. On Tuesday night, they travel to Vicarage Road to play Watford – it might just be the most important match of their recent history.