Craven Palace cop out at United

 

Eighteen minutes is no life span for a football match, but that turned out to be the short-lived reality at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Only one fifth of the action had elapsed when Teddy Sheringham stepped aside from the scrum of red and yellow shirts that had assembled to miss David Beckham's corner and thundered the ball into the roof of the Crystal Palace net. Game over.

The referee could have blown the final whistle there and then - though not because, as they argued in Spain after one particularly brilliant Diego Maradona goal, the football could get no better but rather because the possibility of surprise had been withdrawn.

Taking surprise out of football is liking taking betting out of horse racing - what is left might look all right, but who cares? And sad as it is to say it, for he is an easily likeable individual, the responsibility lay with Steve Coppell.

Now it was understandable that having watched Manchester United defeat Juventus only 24 hours after being elminated from the League Cup by Hull City, Palace should arrive in the North with an inferiority complex.

It was also possible to comprehend that when Coppell went through the teams man-for-man, he saw that he had 11 subordinates compared to Alex Ferguson. Furthermore, appreciating the Palace players' awe at being at Old Trafford was not difficult.

And yet, taken together this attitude set the limit of Palace's ambition at not receiving a battering. Why? It is simply inconceivable that a Wimbledon or Southampton or Bolton side facing United three days after their most emotionally and physically draining night of the season would not set about both their opponents and causing an upset.

They might have achieved it too, but we will never know as Palace instead chose to see how long they could delay what they obviously viewed as the inevitable. "We had our gameplan which was there for all to see," said Coppell - 10 men behind the ball - "but we shot ourselves in the foot." It did not work because Coppell had a dodgy defence, typified by Herman Hreidarsson's comical own goal on the half-hour, but his team also lacked spirit. Yet when Palace edged forward timidly after half-time Peter Schmeichel had five important saves to make.

That, however, was hardly the point because the contest was long over and United had already been "in the comfort zone", as Ferguson put it, for some time. "I think we did what we needed to do today - just enough," Ferguson added.

If that was not a damning enough verdict Coppell supplied his own when he called the victory, from United's perspective, "routine". He then spoke of leagues within the Premiership, but while he has an argument there, if more teams adopt Crystal Palace's bashful approach the gap between those leagues will only increase.