Sunday 18 March 2018

Matic completes stunning Man United comeback against Crystal Palace with injury time screamer

Crystal Palace 2 Man United 3

Manchester United's Nemanja Matic celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London. John Walton/PA Wire.
Manchester United's Nemanja Matic celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London. John Walton/PA Wire.

Luke Brown

And so Manchester United got there — eventually.

Trailing 2-0 and playing poorly, a curiously out of sorts United mounted a comeback that was as surprising and it was stirring, battling back to break Crystal Palace hearts through a late rally crowned by a thumping Nemaja Matic half-volley. Once again, Palace were made to rue injury-time.

In the end, they simply did not have enough left in the tank to rewrite history. Two up and coasting thanks to goals from Andros Townsend and Patrick van Aanholt, Roy Hodgson’s stubborn refusal to turn to his substitutes bench ultimately denied his side their first ever Premier League win against United. This could have been the defining result of the Hodgson era. But it now feels one of the worst.

Simply put: this is a result that hurts Palace so much more than it helps United. Jose Mourinho’s side jump back above Liverpool back into second place, just the 16-points behind runaway league leaders Manchester City. Meanwhile Palace — who threw away a two goal lead, three points and a remarkable five league places — remain mired in the relegation zone.

It had started so well. Comfortable in the knowledge that the odds were so heavily stacked against them, Palace flew out of the blocks. James Tomkins of all people went close with a speculative overhead kick, for which an 800-word article alone could probably be dedicated, while Alexander Sorloth left Paul Pogba flat on his arse before the Frenchman had even finished putting his gloves on.

And so there was, remarkably, little surprise when Palace opened the scoring. Christian Benteke ran on to a well-weighted Luka Milivojevic through-ball and cut inside, meandering his way to the edge of the box and laying off Townsend. The winger opted for precision rather than power — not that it mattered — with the ball flying into the hapless Victor Lindelof and looping past a stranded David de Gea. It marked the first time Palace had ever taken the lead over United in the Premier League.

From that moment on, Palace would have been forgiven for settling back into the dogged trench warfare tactics that so nearly won them a point against Tottenham Hotspur. But with Benteke and Sorloth causing such an amusing degree of panic among United’s plasterboard defence, they pressed on.

The Norwegian — blonde and baby-faced but blessed with the frame of a moderately successful WWE wrestler — almost made it two. Robbing the ball from a thoroughly emasculated Matic, he careered into the final third with all the abandon of a fun runner inexplicably finding himself at the front of a marathon, only to screw his shot directly into the midriff of De Gea. He should have done better.

It was to be Palace’s best chance for an uncomfortably long spell, as a rattled United began to dominate possession, if to precious little avail. Romelu Lukaku almost lumbered through clear on goal. Jesse Lingard pinged one wide. Wayne Hennessey flapped at a cross, or five. But they lacked dynamism in the final third and could have few complaints at heading into the dressing room a goal down.

At the heart of their troubles was an utterly porous midfield. Pogba, all inexplicably heavy touches and imploring looks towards the bench, was abject. Again. Meanwhile proud Scotsman Scott McTominay shuffled around the place with all the presence of a wizened old family butler, regularly touching the ball but doing precious little with it. He was lucky to escape with a yellow card for a wild lunge on Patrick van Aanholt, and looked crestfallen to receive what can only be described as a royal bollocking from a grim-faced Alexis Sanchez, who was tortuously pulling his shirt up to his armpits as early as the half-hour mark.

Something had to change. Something did: Palace went 2-0 up immediately after Jose Mourinho withdrew McTominany for Marcus Rashford. And what a comical goal for a club of United’s standing to concede.

Benteke was fouled by Matic on the halfway line, with both the Serbian and Antonio Valencia more interested in venting to the referee than paying attention to the wily Jeffrey Schlupp, who snatched at the opportunity to take a free-kick. Van Aanholt could barely believe the acres of green in front of him, striding into the box and thumping a no-nonsense shot past De Gea at his near post. 

United needed a hero; they got Chris Smalling. Just moments after spurning an opportunity to head home an instant reply — instead nodding a corner-kick just wide of Hennessey’s back stick — the defender connected with a long punt forward from Valencia, following another set-piece. Played on by Tomkins, Smalling set his sights properly this time, heading across Hennessey and into the net.

A lesser team would have sunk into their shells, scrambling back behind an increasingly entrenched defence. Palace kept up the pressure, almost scoring a third with a glancing header from a sublime Van Aanolt cross. But such adventure presented more chances to United, who went close through the improving Pogba and the substitute Juan Mata, as Palace legs began to grow heavy. And ultimately they were made to pay for their sense of adventure.

As the seconds ticked down United went even closer. Matic rifled a low shot across the face of goal which — rather bizarrely — centre forward Benteke hacked off the line; then Sanchez’s wild strike careered off Milivojevic and fell in a surreally slow parabola which bounced off the crossbar. Lukaku was to equalise from the rebound. Pouncing upon the ball he feinted one, two, three, four times, each delay from pulling the trigger prompting louder howls from the crowd, before lashing a low finish under the flailing Hennessey.

Two pieces of late United magic — at either end of the pitch — saw them salvage what had promised to be a dismal night. First the now obligatory piece of De Gea wizardry. Attacking Townsend’s deflected cross, Benteke brushed Lindelof and Smalling out of the way to head the ball towards goal at point blank range, only to be denied by the kind of world-class one handed save that Hennessey is probably incapable even of dreaming of.

And then the winning goal, by far the best of the evening. Bringing a horribly deflected Pogba cross under neat control, Matic chanced his arm with one final effort: a dipping half-volley from 30-yards out. He hit it sweetly, the ball sailing over Palace’s despairing ranks and well beyond Hennessey. Palace’s long wait for a win over United continues.

Independent News Service

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