LONDON // Crystal Palace were denied a memorable FA Cup upset by Stylian Petrov's late header at the end of a pulsating clash at Selhurst Park. The Bulgarian midfielder glanced in Stewart Downing's corner three minutes from time to earn Aston Villa a replay they barely deserved after a superb performance from the hosts. Johnny Ertl, the Austrian defender, headed Palace into the lead before James Collins equalised with a header of his own. A stunning free-kick from Darren Ambrose 20 minutes from time looked to have earned Palace a place in the quarter-finals but instead they will travel to Villa Park for a replay a week on Wednesday.
Championship Palace were plunged into administration last month with debts of £30 million (Dh172.5m) but the perpetual optimism of their fans was on show through the early chants of "we're going to Wembley". Villa are themselves off to England's national stadium later this month as Carling Cup finalists, but manager Martin O'Neill showed his commitment to the FA Cup by naming his strongest side. The visitors dominated possession in the opening stages but failed to create clear openings. O'Neill would perhaps have started considering that the best route to goal might come from a set-piece. And so it did, but it was the hosts who took the lead after 23 minutes through Ertl. His first goal in Palace colours coming when he rose highest to divert Ambrose's corner into an unguarded net after Villa keeper Brad Friedel found himself in no-man's land.
The game seemed to settle down and just as Palace began to look comfortable, Collins levelled with a fine glancing header from Downing's vicious in-swinging free-kick. O'Neill brought on John Carew for Emile Heskey at the break and the big Norwegian forward almost making an instant impact but his snapshot was well kept out by Julian Speroni. If ever there was a goal deserving of an FA Cup upset, it was Ambrose's bolt from the blue 20 minutes from time. The threat seemed minimal when the midfielder lined up a free-kick 30 yards from goal, but he struck a ferocious drive that swerved away from Friedel's desperate dive and nestled in the top corner. It may have been cold in south London but the game was reaching fever pitch. Moments later, Ambrose nearly had another but his looping header bounced back off the crossbar.
Villa went straight up the other end, where Speroni athletically kept out Carew's header. Speroni again denied Carew and, though the ball deflected out off Nathan Delfouneso's head, the referee gave a corner. Downing delivered the perfect cross and Petrov headed home. A replay may prove vital for Palace's administrators, but it could have been so much better. The Palace boss Neil Warnock said: Neil Warnock: "I think that was the best FA Cup game of the weekend, a real end-to-end cup tie. I even thanked Martin before the game for the team he put out - that was a real compliment to us. "We wanted to take them back there if we're honest. I think it would have been flat here if we had won and then got Reading or West Brom away in the next round! "What can you say about Ambrose? He does it every week, every day in training and that goal deserved to win any game." email@example.com