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Unread 30-11-2011, 10:40 PM
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Default Manchester United 1-2 Crystal Palace

In the end, it was a golden night for Crystal Palace. The Championship side are in the League Cup semi-finals for the first time in 10 years, taking advantage of a drab performance from Manchester United to knock out the Premier League champions after extra time.

This was their first victory at Old Trafford since 1989 and, for that, they were indebted to their substitutes. Darren Ambrose put them ahead, picking out the top corner with a cannon of a shot from fully 35 yards, and Glenn Murray headed in the winner after Federico Macheda's penalty had prolonged the night by another 30 minutes.

Sir Alex Ferguson's team never really got going, passing up the chance to reach the semi-finals for the sixth time in the last decade. United were poor in some moments, and desperately so in others, and even though they have bigger ambitions at Old Trafford it still represented a disappointing evening in front of their lowest home crowd for six years.

Ferguson, as always, gave his real first-team the night off and played a more youthful side, reminiscing in his programme notes about the night he started this trend in a second-round tie at Port Vale in 1994, and the following morning complaints were raised in the House of Commons.

Jonny Evans was installed as captain, with the Da Silva twins playing as attacking full-backs, the third-choice goalkeeper, Ben Amos, chosen instead of David de Gea and rare starts for the likes of Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf and Darron Gibson. With so many changes, it was probably inevitable that it would be a little disjointed at times. Nonetheless, there were large swathes of the match when the team in red looked strangely devoid of confidence and several players fell conspicuously short of what would have been expected.

Palace, 12th in the Championship, did not exhibit any symptoms of stage fright. They looked lively, breaking with pace, particularly through Wilfried Zaha and, by half-time, it was clear that Dougie Freedman's side were encouraged by the absence of so many of United's usual performers.

This was a scruffy period for the home side. Macheda was particularly poor, misplacing passes and at one point trying to control a routine ball only to knock it out for a throw-in. He was not, however, alone. There was the sight of Diouf being penalised for a foul throw, and only sporadic moments when they put together a decent string of passes in penetrative areas.

They were also grateful for the leniency of the referee, Chris Foy, when Kagisho Dikgacoi's pass after a quarter of an hour gave Zaha the chance to run clear. Zaha went down, with Fábio da Silva leaning in from behind, but Foy decided to give the defender the benefit of the doubt. Had he awarded a free-kick, a red card would inevitably have followed. Later, United escaped again when Gibson tripped Zaha on the edge of the penalty area.

These were moments when the home crowd could have been forgiven for regretting Ferguson's decision to take his experimentation only so far. The night felt flat, with a full-price ticketing policy meaning unusually large expanses of empty red seats.

The crowd needed something to enliven the mood and so it was a pity, for example, that Ravel Morrison had not been given his first start. Ferguson has shown many times he knows exactly when to introduce his most prized young players, but it is also undeniable that Morrison is so rare a talent his presence would have turned up the decibel levels a few notches.

As it was, United huffed and puffed their way to the interval. Macheda waved his hand apologetically. Dimitar Berbatov shrugged his shoulders. Fábio picked up a booking and then limped off, a scene that is becoming depressingly familiar for those who have followed his career.

Later, Rafael da Silva would also limp away, in another case of deja vu. Berbatov was injured, too, making way for Morrison at half-time. Within four minutes, the 18-year-old had demonstrated why there has been so much hype, with a wonderfully executed back-heel into Park Ji-sung's path. Shortly afterwards he had United's first shot on target. Another quickly followed in United's first spell of concerted pressure.

Palace were suddenly playing too cautiously. But then Ambrose produced what was quite possibly the goal of his career. The midfielder has always struck the ball sweetly and this one dipped, swerved and arrowed into the top corner. It was a remarkable strike but Palace's lead was short-lived, McCarthy grabbing at Macheda's shirt to give away a soft penalty.

As normal time gave way to extra time, Palace, though, did not wilt. The onslaught that might have been expected never really materialised until right at the death and the visiting team not only retook the lead but looked reasonably comfortable.

Daniel Taylor

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