By Tim Hodges
Crystal Palace 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0
The Albion held Crystal Place to a draw at Selhurst Park but came agonisingly close to winning their play-off first leg.
Dean Hammond saw his close-range header turned away by Julian Speroni early in the first half and Leo Ulloa, well placed on the edge of the six-yard box, mistimed a header which span wide.
Will Buckley, starting on the right wing, crossed the ball in for Hammond’s chance, as the Seagulls caused Palace real problems down the flanks.
Jonathan Williams had Palace’s best chance of the first half but fired wide with Tomasz Kuszczak apparently beaten.
The Albion continued to dominate. Liam Bridcutt found himself in space but dragged his shot wide.
Wayne Bridge, as he did at the Amex in March, contained Wilfried Zaha well. The only time the Palace winger broke free of the Albion full back, the chance was wasted, with Dikgacoi’s shot charged down by Bridcutt.
Before half time Inigo Calderon managed to wriggle through to the Palace penalty area but was crowded out by Speroni and a clutch of Palace defenders.
As the second half started it was clear that Zaha was being pitched to run at the yellow carded Calderon.
Palace were far more of a force. From a Danny Gabbidon cross Owen Garvan sent a header goalwards, which was kept out by a combination of Andrea Orlandi and Kuszczak. Orlandi appeared to swipe the ball in to the Albion keeper and the ball rebounded along the goal line but Orlandi managed to clear.
After a Palace corner, former Albion striker Glenn Murray tried to turn and stretch for a loose ball but the Brighton-based player went down with no Albion player near him and was stretchered off.
As Palace grew in confidence with ten minutes left the Eagles had their best chance of the night. As the ball fizzed around the penalty area Dikgacoi stabbed it goalwards but it was cleared almost off the line by Calderon.
In a flurry of late substitutions Kevin Phillps came on for Palace and Ashley Barnes and Kazenga LuaLua entered the fray for Albion.
For a while in the last few minutes it seemed that LuaLua might provide a breakthrough for Albion but, apart from a couple of long-range shots from Hammond, the Albion were not to trouble Speroni again.
The Seagulls now host Palace back at the Amex on Monday evening, which is poised to be an incredible climax to the season. The outright winners of the match, which could go to penalties, will go to Wembley to contest the greatest prize of all for a Championship side.
A place in the Premier League.