Man United enjoy gentle Wembley warm-up win over Palace
Matteo Darmian scores a stunner as Louis van Gaal’s side stay in the hunt for fourth
Matteo Darmian scored Manchester United’s second in their 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. Photograph: Reuters
Louis van Gaal is currently all about the result and not the display as Manchester United try to chase down Arsenal and Manchester City in the hunt for a Champions League place.
On Wednesday night the manager was given both by his team, who cruised past a soporific Crystal Palace, who judging by this effort are fifth-bottom for good reason.
The victory takes United to 59 points, one behind Arsenal and two behind City, though the Gunners have a game in hand, hosting West Bromwich Albion on Thursday.
Yet given the high stakes of this contest it was played out in a strangely muted atmosphere before an Old Trafford that was hardly packed. This reflects the apathetic feeling towards Van Gaal’s tenure and will surely trouble the executive should more numbers stay away in the final two home matches.
After City dropped two points at Newcastle United the task for United was to take advantage and keep up their challenge for a top-four finish. But before this, the first question concerned how Van Gaal’s men would line up. An XI that showed only Morgan Schneiderlin as a bona fide central midfielder meant the manager was shifting shape from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a loose 4-1-4-1, in which the middle quartet formed a diamond with Wayne Rooney at its tip behind Marcus Rashford.
If this was designed to wrongfoot the visitors, it worked inside five minutes. Old Trafford was still settling when Matteo Darmian, United’s left-back, moved along his flank and pinged over a cross. It appeared innocuous but not to poor Damien Delaney. He stabbed at the ball, then watched in dismay as it beat Julian Speroni to the visiting goalkeeper’s right.
As Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Aston Villa here featured United’s 16th clean sheet of the league campaign this early goal suggested it could be a long night for the visitors.
Van Gaal has drilled his players incessantly in the art of keeping the ball and smothering an opposition and for the next 10 minutes or so United pinned Alan Pardew’s team in their half.
When Palace final made it into United territory the foray was over in a flash and United again threatened along the right, via Jesse Lingard. Later, Anthony Martial warmed Speroni’s fingers with a trademark swoop inside from the left before unloading with his right.
The closest Palace had this far managed was a move engineered by Wilfried Zaha, who was making a first return since December 2013, when he played for David Moyes’s United in a 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United.
The winger hit a ball in from the right, Chung-yong Lee headed back across goal, and Emmanuel Adebayor shinned his shot wide of David de Gea.
As the contest meandered and the stadium was close to quiet there was a jocular moment when Pardew hopped in irritation at a United challenge and the manager dropped his ever-present notebook on to the pitch.
Rashford’s stellar start to his United career featured seven goals in 12 appearances and the keeping of Rooney and Martial from the No9 berth. As the break approached there were illustrations of how all can cause damage when playing together in whatever position.
First Martial glided along the left to leave Martin Kelly trailing, and turned inside for Rashford to go close. Then Rooney threaded a pass into the 18-year-old down the right channel and the youngster banged the ball at Speroni, who saved.
Later Martial unleashed a left-foot shot that Speroni again did well to repel. At the interval it remained 1-0 so United need to convert their chances to kill Palace off or they would be vulnerable to a sucker-punch.
Perhaps this was the message Van Gaal gave his team because as soon as the second half began Rooney came close to doubling the lead. A shot with his left foot was goalbound but at the last moment out came a Papa Souaré leg and the ball was cleared.
The next time United threatened they did have a second. This came after Adrian Mariappa dispossessed Rashford in the area, the ball rolled to Juan Mata and his shot won a corner. When this came over from the left the ball broke to Darmian and the Italian finished with a sweet 20-yard effort that pinballed in off Speroni’s right post for his first for the club.
Rashford’s last action was to over-elaborate when he might have taken aim. He was then replaced by Memphis Depay, receiving a deserved ovation.
From here this was a keep-ball exercise for United. They will travel to Wembley for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final with Everton with morale high, especially given the Toffees’ trouncing by Liverpool.