Premier League: Manchester United 2-0 Crystal Palace
United: Damien Delaney (og.4), Matteo Darmian (55)
Manchester United closed the gap on top-four rivals Arsenal and Manchester City with a routine 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, providing a timely morale boost ahead of Saturday’s Emirates FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
The victory – secured via a Damien Delaney own goal and Matteo Darmian volley – leaves the Reds just a point behind the Gunners ahead of their game-in-hand against West Bromwich Albion on Thursday, with Manuel Pellegrini’s Blues two points ahead after their draw at Newcastle earlier in the week.
Louis van Gaal made three changes to his starting XI from the preceding win over Aston Villa by recalling Matteo Darmian, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial in a 4-3-3 formation, with Wayne Rooney playing in midfield alongside Morgan Schneiderlin and Juan Mata.
The captain was deployed in a deeper role behind in-form Marcus Rashford and it was the 18-year-old’s back-heeled pass to Darmian that led to United breaking the deadlock on four minutes, when the Italian's left-wing cross was accidentally diverted into the net by Eagles defender Delaney.
Martial, Rooney, Rashford and Lingard all went close to scoring with first-half efforts, with Julian Speroni producing solid saves on each occasion, but in truth the opening 45 minutes lacked tempo and cutting edge, particularly with Palace being so willing to sit back. Alan Pardew’s players possibly had Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Watford on their minds, rather than Premier League points.
STATS AT HALF-TIME
Possession: United 62% Crystal Palace 38%
Shots at goal: United 7 Crystal Palace 2
Shots at target: United 6 Crystal Palace 0
Corners: United 3 Crystal Palace 2
The second half began in a familiar manner as van Gaal's men attacked an Eagles defence that was more than willing to sit back and soak up pressure, and Rooney almost doubled the advantage straight away when his low drive from the edge of the area was diverted away from goal by Souare.
Despite that early miss, United's second goal duly arrived soon after 55 minutes - although it came from the left boot of an unfamiliar scorer, as industrious left-back Darmian latched on to Delaney’s headed clearance to chest the ball down and execute a superb volley that soared into the net, after clipping the post, in front of the Stretford End.
Lingard and Rashford both forced excellent saves from Speroni in quick succession on 62 minutes, just moments before the latter was replaced by Memphis Depay to a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd. His young team-mate Jesse was then taken off shortly afterwards, with Wembley possibly in mind.
Van Gaal made his third and final change on 78 minutes as Rooney depatured the action to plenty of acclaim from the supporters, following a solid performance in midfield that should book his starting place against his boyhood club Everton at Wembley. One cause for concern, however, was the sight of a hobbling Chris Smalling after the centre-back flew into a 50/50 challenge during the closing stages, although the centre-back confirmed afterwards that he was fine.
While this match was by no means a classic, United's performance was undeniably professional and the result could yet prove to be decisive in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification.
STATS AT FULL-TIME
Possession: United 66% Crystal Palace 34%
Shots at goal: United 16 Crystal Palace 5
Shots on target: United 10 Crystal Palace 0
Corners: United 10 Crystal Palace 2
United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Lingard (Herrera 73'), Schneiderlin, Mata, Rooney (Fellaini 78'), Rashford (Memphis 64'), Martial.
Subs not used: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Rojo, Young.
Crystal Palace: Speroni, Kelly, Mariappa, Delaney, Souare, Jedinak, Cabaye (McArthur 66'), Lee (Mutch 60'), Zaha, Sako, Adebayor (Wickham 75').
Subs not used: Dreher, McArthur, Puncheon, Campbell.
Booked: Kelly, Souare
"I was very happy with the performance and I think it was a four or five to zero game. We should have finished it much earlier and scored much more goals. We are still in the race [for the top four]." - Louis van Gaal
"I think we've done exactly what we've needed to do, and it's about having City and Arsenal looking over their shoulder, and we've put a bit more pressure on." - Chris Smalling