Villa rescued by late equaliser
Stiliyan Petrov's late goal saved Aston Villa from an FA Cup exit as the Bulgarian rescued a 2-2 draw against Championship club Crystal Palace in the fifth round on Sunday.
Prior to Petrov's intervention, Palace, who are currently in administration, looked on course for a shock victory thanks to Darren Ambrose's stunning 70th-minute free kick. That strike gave the home side the lead after Villa's James Collins had cancelled out Johnny Ertl's opening goal in a thrilling cup tie at Selhurst Park.
The early demise of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in this competition meant that Villa came into the tie knowing they had a great chance of securing a double Wembley final appearance this season. In two weeks time they face United in the League Cup final, and Martin O'Neill's side could have been forgiven for getting ahead of themselves and noting that victory over Palace would ensure a place in an under-strength quarter-final draw.
O'Neill's team selection - he fielded a virtually full strength Villa side - underlined the priority the manager was giving to this tie. And his players responded exactly as he would have wanted them to, taking control of the game and threatening repeatedly from a succession of set-pieces.
Collins and Richard Dunne were both involved in goal-mouth scrambles after the home side failed to deal with corners and could have given the visitors the lead. And O'Neill was left incensed when Ashley Young went down under a challenge from Palace full back Nathaniel Clyne only for referee Kevin Friend to wave away appeals for a penalty.
Palace, though, have shown admirable character since the club was placed into administration. The financial problems gripping the club have had a direct impact on the players, with Neil Warnock's side forced to wait for their monthly salary to be paid on more than one occasion.
And the continuing uncertainty surrounding club means they have been unable to plan for their futures beyond the end of this season. The 10-point penalty imposed by the Football League after the club was placed in the hands of the administrator has transformed a potential promotion campaign into a fight against relegation.
But Warnock is a past master at creating a siege mentality and the fourth round victory over Wolves showed there is nothing wrong with the spirit at the south London club. That spirit was again in evidence when they responded to Villa's early pressure by taking a 25th minute lead through Ertl. Neil Danns worked his way into the box on the left and won a corner that Ambrose swung in towards Ertl who met the cross with a firm header on the edge of the six yard box.
Villa immediately knew they were in a full-blooded cup tie and they took just eleven minutes to equalise through Collins. Like Palace, Villa's best chances came from corners and this time defender Collins connected with a near post header from Stewart Downing's cross to equalise.
O'Neill was forced into a half-time change with John Carew replacing the injured Emile Heskey, and the Norwegian striker quickly forced a good save out of Palace keeper Julian Speroni. That was the first of three excellent saves from the Argentine keeper to deny Carew.
And Speroni appeared to have laid the foundations for a shock victory when Ambrose drilled a stunning 70th minute free-kick past Brad Friedel's weak attempted save from 35 yards.
That injected urgency into Villa's play and their late efforts were rewarded when Petrov connected with Downing's corner to head the visitors level in the 87th minute and set up a replay at Villa Park.