Nemanja Matic struck a stoppage-time screamer to overturn Manchester United’s two-goal deficit and overcome Crystal Palace in a 3-2 thriller at Selhurst Park on Monday night.
It was a tale of two halves for Jose Mourinho’s men, who played out a dismal opening 45 minutes and fell behind to an Andros Townsend strike inside the opening quarter of an hour. United kicked off the second half in similarly disappointing fashion, as Palace’s left-back Patrick van Aanholt capitalised on some shocking defending by the visitors to double the hosts’ advantage.
There was a feeling inside Selhurst Park that the next goal would be crucial and so it proved. Chris Smalling’s header a few minutes later halved the deficit for the Reds, who were starting to turn the screw and grabbed an equaliser as the game entered the final quarter of an hour, through Romelu Lukaku. Then, deep into stoppage time, Matic struck the sweetest of half-volleys from 25 yards out to hand United all three points and bag his first goal for the club.
Mourinho made just one change from the side that beat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford last weekend, with match-winning hero Jesse Lingard coming in for Anthony Martial on the right-hand side of United’s three-pronged attack. However, the performance put in by the Reds, particularly during the first half, will be of concern to the Portuguese boss, who will be well aware that his side must considerably raise their game in time for Liverpool’s visit to the Theatre of Dreams on Saturday.
United started the game sloppy in possession and unable to string a move together and conceded with just 11 minutes on the clock. Easily heading away a Paul Pogba long ball, Palace passed their way through United’s midfield unchallenged before picking out Christian Benteke. The Belgium international did well to hold off Chris Smalling before laying the ball off to the onrushing Townsend, whose left-footed strike from outside the box took a wicked deflection off the unfortunate Victor Lindelof and wrong-footed David de Gea in goal, who could only watch the ball sail into the net.
The less said about United’s first-half performance the better, with the visitors failing to show any urgency and find the equalising goal. In midfield, Pogba had a half to forget, whilst Scott McTominay can hold his head high as he put in another good showing. At half-time, however, it was the 21-year-old, who was on a yellow card, who was hooked by Mourinho, as England international Marcus Rashford came on in his place. The 20-year-old made a bright start immediately following his introduction, although that did not stop Palace from doubling their advantage following some extremely lax defending from the Reds.
A quickly-taken free-kick by the hosts saw Smalling and Antonio Valencia completely switch off, allowing van Aanholt all the time and space in the world to come one-on-one with de Gea and rifle the ball past the Spaniard and into the net. The hosts were in dreamland and on the basis of United’s first-half showing, had no reason to fear a comeback. Minutes later, Smalling had a chance to fire home an almost-instant response, only to head the ball wide. He was not to be denied on 55 minutes, as his headed goal got the ball rolling for a vintage United comeback. Following a cleared Reds corner, Valencia picked up possession on the edge of the hosts’ box, before lofting a delightful ball right onto the head of Smalling, who planted the ball into the far post and halved United’s deficit.
Smelling blood, the Reds began to grow in confidence and exert more pressure on the Eagles, who were beginning to drop deeper and deeper in their own half, allowing the visitors to probe further forward. Pogba nearly curled home the equalising goal minutes later, only to see his right-footed effort palmed away by Wayne Hennessey for a corner kick. It was Matic’s turn to go close next. Following a melee inside the Eagles’ box, the ball broke to the Serbia international whose rasping effort was blocked on the line by Benteke.
With time ticking away, United restored parity with a goal that their second-half showing merited. With Palace’s backline on the backfoot, Alexis Sanchez, who up until this point had endured a subdued evening, let fly with a right-footed shot that took a deflection and looped into the air before crashing off the crossbar. This time, the ball fell kindly to Lukaku inside the six-yard box, who took his time to set himself before firing in a low shot that beat Hennessey and nestled into the back of the net.
Despite having all the momentum behind them, United yet again required the ever-brilliant de Gea to bail them out. Almost instantly, Palace had the ball in the visitors’ half and were looking to restore their lead. A ball into the six-yard area found the head of Benteke, whose downward header seemed destined for the back of the net, only for the Spain international to pull off yet another incredible save and acrobatically paw the ball away from danger.
Then, deep into stoppage-time, Matic scored his first United goal in the most astonishing style. Pogba’s attempt ricocheted into the path of United’s number 31, who took a touch to cushion the bouncing ball, before firing in one of the goals of the season past a helpless Hennessey, sending the away end into raptures.
The performance, especially in the opening 45 minutes, was not vintage United, but the way the Reds fought back to claim all three points most certainly was.