The time had long past for Manchester United to get their skates on to catch Chelsea - they need rockets under their boots to do that. But at least they lit the fuse last night with a win that fairly crackled and fizzed with energy, incident and, yes, goal after goal, but never exploded into anything utterly convincing.
In fact, you would need the opposite adjective to describe the United defence, who simply do not seem to know when a game is won. Twice they allowed Palace to equalise and if it had not been for two goals from the irrepressible Paul Scholes, as well as a vintage Ryan Giggs performance, the points they managed to throw away against Fulham last Monday could conceivably have been in danger of being replicated here.
Indeed, despite the overwhelming scoreline, it was anything but glory, glory on a day when Ruud van Nistelrooy's injury was revealed to be worse than first feared. "It was the calf but now it's the Achilles," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "The recommended treatment is therapy and doing a complete rehab on his injury. Hopefully, it's four weeks or six weeks at the very most but we don't know for certain."
And then there was Wayne Rooney, who was forced to continue his long education yesterday (amazing - he is still learning at 19). Yesterday's lesson was "how to miss a penalty" and didn't he he do well when he stepped up in the eighth minute and weakly sidefooted into the corner of the goal where Gabor Kiraly's outstretched arm happened to be? Cue the red mist, which seems to be precariously positioned just above Rooney's eyes, ready to drop at the slightest rattling. Within a few seconds, Rooney was leaping on to the back of Gonzalo Sorondo, who had the effrontery to stand in his way.
Fortunately for United, the ball did not go near the vicinity of their boy blunder for 10 minutes but when it did he showed us why he is who he is with a wicked ball across the box that was too good even for his own attackers. He was chasing quickfire redemption, but when the goal arrived after 22 minutes, it was that old favourite Scholes who reminded us why he is who he is with a silky piece of footwork in the six-yard box to escape his markers and fire high into Kiraly's goal. He had started the move too, his short corner played to Giggs, who fed Roy Keane, the captain then anticipating Scholes's run into the box with a perfectly-weighted pass.
In true Old Trafford fashion the floodgates were thus opened, but strangely the tide was not heading in one direction. Palace had not managed a goal here since someone called Iain Dowie scored, and perhaps still tasting the elixir of that strike all those years ago, he urged his men forward to grab their own slice of south-east London history. The unexpected equaliser came from an equally unexpected source. Danny Granville, the full-back who crudely brought down Darren Fletcher to concede the penalty, was on a giddying excursion upfield in the 27th minute when he managed to follow up his own deflected header off Wayne Routledge's cross to drill past Roy Carroll. Joy unrestrained.
But only for eight minutes. After Kiraly had performed more heroics first to keep out a Keane piledriver and then one from Scholes, it was obvious that something had to give. And when Alan Smith's cushioned header, off a Scholes corner, flew towards the top right-hand corner, there was nothing the Hungarian could do. Order restored, or so they thought.
To lose one lead at old Trafford is inexcusable, but to lose two can only be fully explained by an expletive from Ferguson's lexicon. With 50 seconds of the second-half gone, Michael Hughes swung in a cross from the right that found Joonas Kolkka all on his own in the six-yard box to head in. Where was the defence? Nowhere near where it should have been, that's for sure.
Alas, not two minutes later, the Palace defender Emmerson Boyce was exactly where he should have been when Giggs's cross came into the area - on Scholes's shoulder. Wrong time, wrong place; the ball diverting off the hapless Boyce into his own net. There was more. Another minute, another goal - the third in four minutes - when Scholes linked on to Smith's flick header before blasting past the by-now stricken Kiraly.
At last Old Trafford could rest easy and although Palace courageously pressed on - Carroll making one fine save off Routledge - United were toying with them, with Rooney, in particular, in full Gameboy mode. Rio Ferdinand somehow put a header over an empty goal, Smith saw an audacious scissor-kick scrape paint and John O'Shea turned in Giggs's cross in stoppage time to apply the icing. But you feel the cake will only be served when the gap with Chelsea becomes anything like bridgeable.
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- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Ryan Giggs