United, far too sloppy and far too narrow early on, had fallen behind 1-0. Shortly after halftime, Patrick van Aanholt doubled Palace’s lead, and appeared to set the hosts on their way out of the relegation zone.
But Chris Smalling capitalized on some slack Palace marking to bring United back to within one. Romelu Lukaku equalized. David De Gea’s heroics prevented a third Palace goal. And finally, with the game clock having ticked past 90 minutes, Nemanja Matic won the game with a swerving half-volley:
United’s various issues had been laid bare in the first half. “My team made so many mistakes,” Jose Mourinho said after the match. “We had amazing attitude, we had quality football in the second half, but we made so many defensive mistakes – and I’m not speaking only about my defenders.”
It wasn’t just the mistakes, though. United had structural flaws. Mourinho started the night with no wingers, in what looked like a tilted version of the 4-2-2-2 that beat Chelsea eight days earlier. He relied on his fullbacks for width, but they didn’t provide much of it. United missed opportunities to spray the ball side to side, and mis-hit passes intended to accomplish just that.
At the other end, one of those mistakes Mourinho alluded to cost United an early goal. Paul Pogba allowed Andros Townsend to sneak into space at the top of the box. Townsend hit Christian Benteke’s pass first time. His shot deflected off Victor Lindelof, and past a helpless De Gea:
United then fell asleep early in the second half. Palace midfielder Jeff Schlupp released van Aanholt with a quickly-taken free kick, and the Dutch left back slotted past De Gea at the near post.
A couple of Mourinho substitutions changed the game. The Portuguese boss inserted Marcus Rashford at halftime in place of the ineffective Scott McTominay. Rashford provided much-needed width.
With the game at 2-1 after Smalling’s header, Mourinho then threw on Juan Mata for Antonio Valencia. Jesse Lingard became the nominal right back, but retained attacking midfield responsibilities as United threw everything forward in search of an equalizer.
That second goal was a true culmination of the Red Devils’ pressure. Minutes earlier, Benteke had cleared a Matic shot off the line. With 15 minutes remaining, United had picked its way through Palace again, and a deflected Alexis Sanchez shot skimmed back off the crossbar. It appeared to skim up off the turf into Lukaku’s hand as well. But the Belgian’s finish stood, and United was level.
As Lukaku raced back to the halfway line, keen to get on with the game’s final chapter, a United victory seemed to be the only end in sight. Palace looked unsettled. United roared on with intent.
Before the visitors could even begin plotting their escape route, though, Benteke rose to meet a cross at the other end. De Gea had to leap to his right to scrape the goal-bound effort to safety.
That Palace attack was the catalyst for a frantic final 15 minutes. Chances came and went at both ends. The decisive moment wasn’t even one of them. It was less a chance, more speculation, one last audacious attempt.
And it proved to be worth it. Matic restored United’s tenuous foothold in second place. He took the Red Devils nine points clear of fifth-place Chelsea. He draped a thin cloak over the problems that are still very much present, but that ultimately didn’t inhibit the Red Devils’ quest for three points on Monday, and likely won’t inhibit Champions League qualification.
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