Matic saves United in thrilling comeback
C Palace 2 Man Utd 3
For so much of this fixture Manchester United were simply abject and yet they somehow managed to turn it around to snatch a vital victory in injury-time.
It was desperately cruel on relegation-threatened Crystal Palace, who could not hold on long enough to their two-goal advantage, with Nemanja Matic scoring a wonderful half-volley from 25 yards to claim the improbable result.
It lifts United back up to second place and, with a nine-point gap over fifth-placed Chelsea, they made an emphatic statement about qualifying for the Champions League. A statement in terms of result, but not in performance as they played for so long as colourlessly as their grey third strip.
It was another poor display by Paul Pogba and quite where Alexis Sanchez was playing was unfathomable, yet the record books will show United won and, for now, that is what matters. But they still play like a team of individuals.
Under the lights it was a raucous start by Palace and it got even louder.
It came as Luka Milivojevic slid the ball to Christian Benteke, who checked and rolled it across the face of the penalty area, where it was met by Andros Townsend with a first-time, left-footed shot. The ball took a heavy deflection off Victor Lindelof, wrong-footing David de Gea and flew high into the net.
If that was unlucky for United, then it certainly was not unfortunate that Townsend had not been tracked by Pogba, while Lindelof had turned his back on the shot.
Palace were depleted. Injuries are hitting them hard and they are haunted by the statistic that without their talisman, former United forward Wilfried Zaha, they do not win. Zaha was absent again as he works his way towards fitness but, suddenly, improbably also, Palace had something to cling to.
It was also the first time they had ever led United in a Premier League game.
But there was a long way to go and even before they scored Palace could have conceded. Romelu Lukaku headed on, Sanchez flicked on again and another header, this time by Jesse Lingard, was blocked by Wayne Hennessey.
At the back, United were vulnerable and almost conceded again from a routine corner which James McArthur met at the near post. However, the midfielder got his body shape wrong and the ball thudded off his chest. Soon after De Gea fielded a low shot by Alexander Sorloth after he out-muscled Matic.
United dominated possession, but it was too slow, too pedestrian. Sanchez attempted to provide some impetus, and scooped a clever ball through to Lukaku, who was unbalanced by Patrick van Aanholt, but he soon showed his frustration. As usual, he began to wave his arms.
In the dug-out, Jose Mourinho slumped back in his seat. His frustration was evident with passes over-hit, especially by Pogba, as attack after attack broke down before a half-chance opened up for Lingard, who dragged his shot wide.
As disjointed as United were, it felt like a long time for Palace to hold out, despite the relentless backing of their fans, who sensed a precious result as their team desperately fight against relegation.
And yet they reached the harbour of half-time still ahead. Mourinho’s fury was obvious. He returned to the dugout for the second half long before his team re-emerged and he took off Scott McTominay for Marcus Rashford, but United fell further behind.
It was a shocking goal to concede as they were penalised for a foul on Benteke, but simply failed to react as Jeffrey Schlupp took a quick free-kick to release Van Aanholt.
He ran on to it, clear on goal, and thumped a shot past a wrong-footed De Gea, inside the near post. What were United doing? Matic had committed the foul and had turned to the referee, Neil Swarbrick, and Chris Smalling stood dawdling. Mourinho fumed.
Smalling had to redeem himself and claimed a goal back as he reached Antonio Valencia’s cross, after a corner was only half-cleared and steered a header back across goal and past Hennessey as James Tomkins lazily played him onside.
Mourinho threw on Juan Mata, withdrawing Valencia, as his team became even more attacking.
It was constant attacking from United and then a Sanchez shot took a huge, looping deflection off Martin Kelly. It struck the goal-frame and bounced back out to Lukaku, who took his time before shooting low past Hennessey.
United were level, but were then indebted to De Gea, who made a brilliant one-handed save as he clawed out a Benteke header.
Just as it seemed destined to end in a draw, Matic struck. It was tough on Palace. Very tough. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)