Brave Palace miss out on Wembley after suffering penalty heartache

CARDIFF 1 vs CRYSTAL PALACE 0

CRYSTAL PALACE manager Dougie Freedman was full of admiration for his players last night despite a brave rearguard action yielding only regret and a penalty shootout defeat, rather than the Carling Cup final appearance at Wembley the Scot insisted his side merited.

The slender advantage Palace held from the first leg disappeared after only seven minutes when Anthony Gardner, the goalscoring hero a fortnight earlier, bulleted Craig Conway’s cross past his own goalkeeper.

A difficult task was complicated still further 12 minutes from the end of normal time when Paddy McCarthy was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence. Palace, however, with a little assistance from the woodwork, which came to their rescue on three occasions, ensured the contest went to a shootout.

Cardiff striker Kenny Miller skied his effort to hand Palace the initiative but Jermaine Easter and Shaun Scannell were unable to find a way past Tom Heaton and when Jonathan Parr missed the target altogether, Freedman was left to contemplate what might have been.

“It was a fantastic physical effort. I felt we were asked a lot of questions which we answered,” said Freedman (inset). “The sending-off was disappointing but the response – you could not ask much more as a manager.

“I’m disappointed short-term, but long-term I think we can take a lot from that. I think we won a lot of hearts tonight. It was a great cup tie and overall it just wasn’t to be.”

Fate certainly appeared to be conspiring against Palace from the outset when Cardiff’s bright start was rewarded in bizarre fashion.

Conway’s centre was certainly hit with force but with no Cardiff attacker within six yards of Gardner the threat to Julian Speroni’s goal looked minimal – until the former Spurs centre-half stooped to head past the Argentine.

Miller then dragged an opportunity wide when clean through on goal and just before half time struck a post with a fine effort on the turn.

After referee Howard Webb took a dim view of McCarthy’s hack at Scotland striker Miller, Palace concentrated their efforts exclusively on survival.

The crossbar came to their aid in the second half of injury time when Filip Kiss’s rising volley clattered the frame of the goal and it was still shaking when Aron Gunnarsson located virtually the same spot with the last act of the game from point blank range.

Still, those misses were compensated for by Heaton’s heroics which ensured the Bluebirds will embark on a third trip to Wembley in four years.

Their manager Malky MacKay added: “When Aron Gunnarsson hit the bar with the last header of the tie you do think it may be one of those evenings. I’m delighted for the group of players, I’m delighted for the club.”