You would have to travel far and wide to find a better atmosphere than that under the Selhurst Park floodlights during a midweek match, and Crystal Palace’s game with Coventry was no different as both sides served up a cracking spectacle. The much anticipated return of football to SE25 delivered The Eagles a satisfying three points on Saturday, leaving Palace fans optimistic of a repeat result against The Sky Blues who were looking to avoid their worst start to a season since 1968.
The opening exchanges saw the home side playing some neat, passing football but with little cutting edge. Most notable about Palace’s style of play was their ability to play the ball out from the back - a far cry from the frustrating route one approach seen on numerous occasions last season. The closest Palace came to opening the scoring was a long range effort from midfield general Owen Garvan whose half volley smashed back off the advertising boards. The young Coventry side took longer to grow into the game and appeared to be lacking in confidence after their poor start to the season. However, the away side soon looked more comfortable in possession and the impressive youngster Gael Bigirimana was instrumental for the Coventry in spreading the ball to the wide areas. It was Palace though who continued to pose a more potent threat up front, and Sean Scannell went close forcing Joe Murphy into a smart save low down to his right.
Both sides were forced to make early substitutions with Gary McSheffrey replaced by seventeen year old debutant Josh Ruffles for Coventry, while Dougie Freedman was forced to bring on youngster Wilfried Zaha for the injured Kagisho Dikgacoi. If anything, the change benefited the home side as they instantly posed more of a threat down the flanks. Zaha and QPR loanee Peter Ramage combined well on the right hand side which allowed the latter to deliver a dangerous cross, only for Jermaine Easter to narrowly be beaten to the ball by the ever present Richard Keogh. The away side lacked killer instinct in the final third, but might have gone ahead had Ruffles not spurned The Sky Blues’ best opportunity shooting harmlessly over the crossbar.
The cagey first half was very much like the opening stages of a boxing bout, both sides eyeing up their opponent, flirting with one or two efforts but neither able to land a killer blow. Palace had perhaps offered more of a threat, but had by no means shocked Coventry into trepidation, and neither side would have been contemplating making any major alterations to their game plan at the interval.
It was in fact the away side who broke the deadlock just minutes into the second half. Cyrus Christie’s attempted cross was blocked by Peter Ramage, but the ball began to loop towards the Palace goal. Under pressure from Lukas Jutkiewicz, a rare moment of indecision from Julian Speroni saw the Argentine Goalkeeper punch the ball into the back of the Coventry centre forward. Despite the best efforts of Paddy McCarthy, the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line and a goal was given – much to the delight of the travelling faithful.
In previous seasons, Palace fans might have been forgiven for thinking that following Coventry’s opener, the night would end in defeat for The South Londoners. However, Freedman claims to have instilled a ‘never say die attitude’ in his Palace squad and, if anything, conceding a goal sparked the home side into life as they went in desperate search of an equaliser. As Wilfried Zaha begun to find his feet, Coventry left back Chris Hussey might have felt that he was losing his as the young Palace winger produced some unreal moments of skill which will leave Hussey having nightmares for months to come. Despite often beating his marker, Zaha’s final ball was frequently intercepted by the resilient Coventry centre backs. Palace’s chances appeared limited as Coventry looked to sit back and protect their lead, while goalkeeper Joe Murphy did his best to run down the clock.
The menacing Sean Scannell again tried his luck from distance but saw his effort well held by the determined Murphy. Perhaps Palace’s best chance for an equaliser fell to the captain, Paddy McCarthy. After a short corner routine made its way to Scannell, the forwards scuffed shot fell to the Irish centre back six yards out from goal, but he could only direct the ball into the back of his own team mate, allowing Coventry to clear the danger.
As the clock continued to tick Palace committed more men forward and Dougie Freedman gave debuts to Australian Mile Jedinak and academy product Jon Williams, hoping that the pair could fashion an equaliser. The home side, however, continued to look vulnerable on the counter attack, and Coventry might have doubled their lead had Julian Speroni not denied Jutkiewicz on two occasions. In fact, the away side looked more likely to snatch a second as opposed to Palace forcing a draw, and Speroni made further amends for his earlier error when he somehow hung on to a Sammy Clingan free kick which looked destined for the top corner.
They say good things come to those who wait, and thankfully for the Palace faithful an equaliser arrived in the final minute of normal time. After an excellent run from the young debutant Williams, the Welshman played a clever pass out to the left for Zaha. The youngsters shot was initially well saved by Murphy, but just as the danger looked to have been cleared, Sean Scannell ferociously volleyed the ball home while in mid air, sending the home fans into raptures.
With five minutes of added time motivating both sets of supporters, the game entered a frantic conclusion as both teams went in search of an unlikely winner. Just as the game looked to be heading for a stalemate, Wilfried Zaha again found the ball at his feet on the left hand side. Having left his man for dead, Zaha fired a low shot towards goal which Murphy could only parry, leaving the outstretched foot of Jermaine Eater to poke the ball into an empty net – sparking delirium amongst the Palace faithful.
The Sky Blues were not even given the chance to respond, as not a moment too soon, referee Patrick Miller brought to a close one of the most memorable nights at Selhurst Park in recent times. In the space of just five minutes, Coventry had gone from returning to the Ricoh Arena with three points, to heading back up the M1 with nothing. The Sky Blues will count themselves unlucky, but will need to expand their style of play if they are to go any way to rectifying their poor start to the campaign. For Palace, the three points represents more than their best start to a season in five years, it exhibits the new found belief that Freedman has provoked in his squad.