Date:Friday March 3 2006
Crystal Palace – Leeds United
At the start of the current Championship campaign Crystal Palace – Leeds was one of the most eagerly awaited fixtures, widely anticipated as a heavyweight clash between two of the divisions most respected sides. The fact that we find ourselves in March before battle has commenced, thanks in no small part to the wonder of technology that is the fixture computer, has removed some of the heat from what promised to be a scorching encounter.
This thrice postponed fixture was always going to elicit strong passions amongst fans and players, perhaps surprisingly it now seems unlikely that it will ultimately decide anything more substantial than pre-playoff bragging rights. Sheffield United, faltering somewhat in recent weeks, sit atop a comfortable seven point cushion over Watford in third place, with Leeds a point behind in fourth. Palace meanwhile find themselves 14 points adrift of the automatic promotion places.
The sterling yet unexpected performances of Reading, and to a lesser degree Sheffield United and Watford, lend the Championship table a distorted appearance from the one so widely envisioned at the seasons start. While pre-season promotion favourites such as Norwich and Southampton have faltered, Palace and Leeds have maintained a consistent presence in the playoff places. In a division where hustle and bustle so often feature at the expense of pass and move, Saturday's meeting could be one for the “good football advocate” to savour. With Leeds' Shaun Derry lining up against his former employers however, it is unlikely that the first “feisty” challenge will be too long in arriving.
The financial misadventures of Leeds United, which saw them semi-finalists in the Champions League just five years ago, have been well documented. Their resurgence under Kevin Blackwell, one of the best managers outside the Premiership, and, as unlikely as it sounds, Ken Bates, is rightly applauded by all football followers with an ounce of compassion or a sense of the games history.
Palace face Leeds buoyed by last weekend's emphatic 4-1 victory over Norwich. This performance was comfortably the most accomplished witnessed at Selhurst Park this season, the Carling Cup triumph over Liverpool included. To Norwich's credit they attacked Palace where others have so often sat back and defended. If Leeds arrive in South London with the same commendable respect in their own, and their opponents abilities, then another endorsement of Championship football could well be on offer.
Palace could have Marco Reich and Aki Riihilahti back in contention following injury. Clinton Morrison and Dougie Freedman are also likely to feature, but long term absentees Danny's Butterfield and Granville are still sidelined.
For Leeds Derry returns from suspension but Frazer Richardson and Matt Kilgallon miss out through injury. Seven players have returned to Elland Road unscathed following international duty.
If both teams play to their potential, and if Marco Reich is fit, expect Palace to emerge triumphant from what promises to be a very closely fought game. In Andy Johnson Palace have the one player outside the Premiership who truly frightens opponents. His contribution could prove decisive.
Palace 2 - Leeds 1
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