Sunday 16 June 2019

Fellaini's smash-and-grab raid puts top four in reach

Crystal Palace 1 Manchester United 2

Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring an unlikely winner against Crystal Palace
Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini celebrates scoring an unlikely winner against Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace's Jason Puncheon scores their goal from a free-kick past David De Gea
Manchester United's Juan Mata scores their first goal from the penalty spot

David Hytner

Manchester United are nearly there. Louis van Gaal's team now need only two more points from their final two matches to ensure qualification for the Champions League. They might not even need that, if Liverpool slip in any of their remaining three games.

But how United wriggled to this vital victory remains a curiosity. Not for the first time they were indebted to the reflexes of the goalkeeper, David de Gea, whose headline moment was the stunning save to deny Glenn Murray at close quarters in the 71st minute, when Crystal Palace were dominant.

United lost Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling to injuries - Rooney's muscle pull towards the end of the first-half felt like the most worrying - and, make no mistake, they were on the ropes after the Palace substitute Jason Puncheon cancelled out Juan Mata's first-half penalty.

But the visitors staged a smash-and-grab and they departed south London counting their good fortune. Even the decisive moment carried a hint of controversy when the substitute Radamel Falcao pushed Damien Delaney into the goalkeeper, Julian Speroni, following Ashley Young's cross. Marouane Fellaini headed in, and how United celebrated.

It has been difficult to judge this coupon-busting United team, who simply do not do trends. If the four-game purple patch from mid-March seemed to explode out of nothing, then the subsequent slump that shadowed them to Selhurst Park had felt equally surprising. The last time United had lost three league games in a row was in 2001.

On the face of it Palace did not have quite so much to play for but they didn't take it easy. It was pretty even in the first half, United pressing onto the front foot and seeing Daley Blind draw Julian Speroni into a low fingertip save on eight minutes with a 25-yard shot; the ball came off Speroni, onto the outside of the post and behind. Palace, meanwhile, looked to spring forward on the counter.

The penalty felt horribly soft from Palace's point of view, although Michael Oliver's award could hardly be quibbled with. Scott Dann, inexplicably, led with his right bicep and Ashley Young's cross from the left banged into it. Young's every touch was jeered by the home support and he had been able to get into the crossing position after Joel Ward's slip.

Mata tucked the kick low and nervelessly inside Speroni's right-hand corner. The midfielder had been entrusted with the responsibility after Van Gaal's loss of faith in Rooney and Robin van Persie from the spot. Van Persie, who was absent here, had missed the previous weekend against West Bromwich. It was Mata's tenth goal of the season.

It was scrappy and physical fare, with Luke Shaw laid out by an accidental elbow from James McArthur and carried off in the 39th minute. Jonny Evans came on, with Phil Jones moved over to left-back. Ander Herrera fluffed a volley from Rooney's knock-down on 22 minutes while Palace also flickered in the first half.

United lost Rooney at the interval - on came Falcao -but it was the other half-time substitute who made the impact. Puncheon was involved in a penalty controversy when he jinked back inside the area and felt Mata catch his standing foot. Down he went. It was not a natural fall but, equally, there was contact from Mata. To the fury of the home support, Oliver took no action.

Up went the temperature, and United looked uncertain, with several of their players enduring nervous moments, chiefly Smalling. The centre-half was penalised for the free-kick from which Puncheon equalised. From 25 yards out, Puncheon's kick deflected off Blind, who was shielding his eyes from the sun in the wall, to beat De Gea.

Palace turned the screw and, for a dismal 20-minute period, United retreated into their shells. At that point anyone would have backed Palace to score the next goal. McArthur prodded narrowly wide, after a mistake from Smalling, and then the big chance, when Dann worked Murray through. From six yards out Murray went for the deft chip only for De Gea to stretch out an arm and save. It was a breathtaking moment from the goalkeeper, which felt even more priceless when Fellaini got the winner. There was still time for De Gea to save from Murray with his legs. United squeaked home.

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