The week in which the Glazer family celebrate the tenth anniversary of taking over Manchester United will begin with a Champions League place almost secured. They appeared to be in danger of a fourth successive defeat after substitute Jason Puncheon equalised Juan Mata’s penalty but the otherwise anonymous Marouane Fellaini took advantage of a defensive howler to earn a flattering victory.
Weakened or not by illness and injury - they lost two more players during the game - it was a patchy performance and after a net spend of £120 million last summer, the Americans have already accepted the need for further investment; hence the agreement to sign Dutch winger Memphis Depay. There needs to be more, notably in defence, to satisfy the demanding Louis van Gaal, even if he comfortably achieves the minimum requirement of a top four finish. It was reported, however, that United will forego up to £20m by declining to sell naming rights to the stadium.
With both teams needing a goal to end a run of three blank games, their respective managers turned to a proven scorer in the quest for one. Palace restored Glenn Murray to the front line in place of Jordon Mutch as one of three changes, while Louis van Gaal finally put Wayne Rooney, who had scored in both matches against the London side last season, back in his proper position as the main attacker. There was no Robin van Persie - who also scored in both those games - because of the virus that had struck the camp, or the over-priced Angel di Maria, who was injured in training.
“It was not easy to make a line-up,” said Van Gaal, who had to make another change before half-time when Luke Shaw took an elbow in the face and was replaced by Jonny Evans. Then he lost Rooney at the interval with a calf strain.
Alan Pardew had said in his programme notes that it was “unthinkable” United would go four successive games without scoring for the first time in the same season since 1961, and they proved him right after 18 minutes. The Palace manager was upset with referee Michael Oliver’s decision to award a penalty but it was easy to see why it was given.
Ashley Young had crossed from the left as Joel Ward slipped and Scott Dann unwisely leant into the ball, which struck him at the top of the arm. Was it deliberate? Handling in the penalty area rarely is but penalties are often given if an advantage is gained. Rooney having missed his last one, Juan Mata was entrusted with the kick, which just beat Julian Speroni’s long, low stretch.
United even wanted another spot-kick when Young, lively throughout, crossed again and Rooney’s jab bounced off Damien Delaney’s hip on to his arm; Oliver was quite right to ignore the appeal.
At the other end there was barely a half-chance before the interval, the returning captain Mile Jedinak’s header over the bar from a corner qualifying as the best effort. They did at least manage to get in a supply of crosses. Wilfried Zaha, given few opportunities by David Moyes in his five months at United, encouraged the home support by going past Antonio Valencia to do so, while Yannick Bolasie on the other flank found himself up against an emergency left-back in Phil Jones, moved out of central defence when Shaw went off.
Rooney walked off gingerly at half-time, rolling down a sock and rubbing his calf, then came out early for a fitness test which ended with him reluctantly making way for Falcao. Palace meanwhile sent on Jason Puncheon for Joe Ledley, adding even more pace, and suddenly reducing United’s defence to a state of chaos.
The wingers switched, giving Zaha the chance to take on Jones, but it was from the other flank that the danger and then the equaliser came. Murray put Pape Soare’s cross into the side netting; Puncheon was denied a penalty after going down under Mata’s challenge; and when the referee finally gave Palace one of the big decisions a goal materialised.
Chris Smalling was penalised for holding Murray and Puncheon stepped up to curl in the free-kick from 20 yards with the most minimal of deflections off an ineffective wall. Before United settled again, they could easily have gone behind, Puncheon sending James McArthur through to toe his shot past the far post and David De Gea pulling off a stunning one-handed save to deny Murray.
Speroni, having denied Young as he cut inside, was at fault in colliding with Delaney from another Young cross, allowing Fellaini to head the winner. De Gea needed to make one more save, from Murray, and it would have been an even harsher scoreline if Speroni had not prevented Ander Herrera adding a third.
Crystal Palace: (4-3-2-1): Speroni; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souare; Jedinak (Lee Chung-yong, 84), Ledley (Puncheon, 45), McArthur; Bolasie, McArthur, Zaha (Chamakh, 85); Murray.
Manchester United: (4-2-3-1): De Gea, Valencia, Smalling (McNair, 84),Jones, Shaw (Evans, 39); Herrera, Blind; Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney (Falcao, 45).
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of match: Ashley Young
Match rating: 7/10
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