Venue: Selhurst Park
Pic Courtesy: Getty Images
This was a stunning comeback from Manchester United. Stunning because it was so improbable, stunning because it was ultimately undeserved, stunning because Nemanja Matic was the match-winner with a brilliant half-volley in injury-time – his first goal for the club – and stunning because Jose Mourinho simply went for it.
The furious United manager threw on more and more attacking players as he chased a game in which relegation-threatened Crystal Palace surged into a two-goal lead. At that point, if they had held on, they would have climbed up to 13th place. By the end they were still in the bottom three. No wonder their players slumped to the turf, spent, at the final whistle.
Mourinho deserves credit for the result which lifted his team back into second place and, more importantly, opened up a nine-point lead over his former club, Chelsea, who are in fifth. With nine games to go that is a daunting advantage to overhaul in the race to finish in the top four and secure Champions League football.
Mourinho acknowledged his team’s spirited comeback but, also, that they were lucky, castigating the childish way they had played at times. It summed up how disjointed and topsy-turvy they are as, even in victory, they were indebted again to goalkeeper David de Gea, who made another world-class save to scoop out a Christian Benteke header at 2-2.
“So many mistakes,” Mourinho said. Maybe it will be a watershed night. But it did not feel like it.
It was, though, the first game in four years that United had come from 2-0 down in the league to win. But this was not a vintage performance and merely confirmed that Mourinho has a real job on his hands to try to get the best out of his two big-name players.
It was not a good evening for Paul Pogba or Alexis Sanchez. Pogba made mistake after mistake and failed to have any impact. Quite where Sanchez was supposed to be playing was unclear. He was, quite literally, all over the place.
The opening goal came as Luka Milivojevic slid the ball to Benteke, who checked and rolled it across the face of the penalty area, where it was met by Andros Townsend with a first-time, left-footed shot. The ball took a heavy deflection off Victor Lindelof, wrong-footing De Gea. If that was unlucky for United then it certainly was not unfortunate that Townsend had not been tracked by Pogba, while Lindelof had turned his back on the shot.
Before that, Wayne Hennessey had saved from Jesse Lingard, whose header had struck the Palace goalkeeper in the face, but the game was going away from United. They were passive, pedestrian and lacking any impetus.
Mourinho slumped in his seat and stung his players at half-time, re-emerging long before they did as he replaced Scott McTominay with Marcus Rashford.
But before the change could have an effect, Palace scored again. Once more it was a shocking concession, with Matic penalised for a foul on Benteke. As he protested to referee Neil Swarbrick, and as Chris Smalling stood watching, Jeffrey Schlupp took a quick free-kick that released Patrick van Aanholt clear on goal. The full-back held his nerve and thumped a powerful shot beyond De Gea. Mourinho was furious.
Once more the noise from the Palace fans was raucous but, crucially, their team could not hold out long enough. Had they managed to do so for more than seven minutes then this result could have been different but, instead, a corner was only half-cleared and Smalling met Antonio Valencia’s cross to steer his header back across Hennessey and into the goal. James Tomkins had erred, slow to come out, playing Smalling onside.
It changed the dynamic. United had time, and more replacements, with Juan Mata and Luke Shaw coming on to form an even more aggressive, attacking formation.
Still, they needed a slice of luck and it came as Martin Kelly threw himself to block a Sanchez shot, with the ball ballooning up before it rebounded off a post. It was collected by Lukaku, who calmly took his time before placing a low shot past Hennessey.
Palace rallied, De Gea denied Benteke and then, in the 91st minute, and after Benteke had cleared a Matic shot off the line, the ball dropped again to the United midfielder.
He was 30 yards out, but his angled half-volley, as Milivojevic failed to close him down, flew beyond Hennessey. United had their win. But it was tough on Palace.
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