Rooney pulls the strings in United stroll
Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 0
Published 21/04/2016 | 02:30
To judge by the rows of empty seats at Old Trafford last night, the lack of entertainment at a club accustomed to chasing the biggest trophies, and thrilling in the process, is proving a difficult pill for some Manchester United supporters to swallow.
Even with an FA Cup semi-final against Everton looming, the number of no-shows felt like a resolute vote of no confidence in Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman can at least argue that his team are doing just enough to remain in the scramble for Champions League qualification.
There have not been too many comfortable victories this season so there was something to be cherished about the ease with which United brushed aside a weakened Crystal Palace side who clearly had both eyes on their own FA Cup semi-final against Watford on Sunday. The win moved United to within a point of Arsenal and two behind Manchester City.
No-one can have had more of a point to prove here than Wayne Rooney, who Van Gaal effectively admitted was auditioning for a starting place against Everton, and the captain came through the test with flying colours.
Utilised in midfield, Rooney was here, there and everywhere and probably shaded only by Anthony Martial for the man-of-the-match award.
For all the talk about whether United can somehow crowbar their way into the top four, the bigger debate for the majority of fans centres around the future of Van Gaal. The opposition to the manager is so fierce in some quarters that they would probably gladly sacrifice Champions League qualification if it guaranteed his departure this summer and the next few weeks could prove particularly anxious as supporters await news from a club that have found themselves in a dreadful quandary.
Speak to some and they believe a deal to bring in Jose Mourinho has already been agreed in principle but that there is no wish to invite distraction with plenty still to play for. Others say a definitive decision has still to be made by the club's hierarchy, with Van Gaal still hopeful of seeing out the final year of his contract, and then there are those who warn not to discount Ryan Giggs' prospects of taking over.
Either way, the mutinous atmosphere that took hold at Old Trafford during that winter of discontent has given way to an air of resignation in more recent weeks.
Was that apathy reflected in the swathes of empty seats at Old Trafford last night? There is a case to say some fans will have been saving their pennies with an expensive trip to Wembley to come on Saturday but a looming big game has seldom been enough to prevent full houses in the past.
Even in victory against Aston Villa, United were so limp, so listless that it was hardly a performance to encourage people to come back soon, and while there will always be plenty who support the club through thick and thin, it is the brand of football that turns fans off.
There was at least a rare early goal, six shots on target and a series of spirited attacks to savour against Palace, even if they were playing opponents whose minds seemed elsewhere. United's game against Everton comes 24 hours before Palace face Watford in the other semi-final, but while this was close to a full-strength team for Van Gaal, Alan Pardew made seven changes to the team that drew 1-1 with Arsenal.
It said a lot about the first half that Julian Speroni was comfortably Palace's best defender. He could do little about the goal, with Damien Delaney unwittingly sticking out a foot to direct Matteo Darmian's left-wing cross into his own net with just four minutes on the clock, but he succeeded in frustrating United thereafter.
United's football has been so leaden and turgid for the most part this season that it almost comes as a shock when they attack with swagger or verve but they did that on occasion against Palace.
Martial was in the thick of it, forcing a couple of excellent diving saves from Speroni and also teeing up Marcus Rashford and Rooney for efforts.
Rooney was deployed in central midfield alongside Juan Mata, with Morgan Schneiderlin holding behind, and revelled in the freedom. At one point the England captain raced 60 yards unchecked before threading a fine pass through to Rashford, whose shot was saved at the near post by Speroni.
Rashford has revealed himself to be more than just a predator in his short stint as a first-team player, though, and a delicious back heel, through the legs of his marker, should have culminated in a shot by Jesse Lingard but with the goal opening up the winger opted to cross.
Palace were really not up to much. Wilfried Zaha, making his first return to Old Trafford since leaving the club, crossed for Lee Chung-yong to knockdown for Emmanuel Adebayor, who volleyed wide, but they were seldom seen as an attacking entity.
The problem for United is they rarely look capable of blowing teams away, despite so often dominating possession. Most of the time they do not create enough opportunities to do so and, as such, are left clinging on when in front or looking witless when behind.
There was an element of relief, then, when Darmian claimed his first goal for the club with a bullet 10 minutes after the restart. Rooney and Mata had already been denied by then but the frustration at failing to force another breakthrough would not last too much longer.
Delaney succeeded only in clearing a corner as far as Darmian who, controlled the ball on his chest, before firing a left-foot shot from just inside the penalty area in off the left-hand post. (© Daily Telegraph, London)