Crystal Palace 2 Manchester United 3
This game had drifted into stoppage time at the end when Nemanja Matic, a player whose performance had drifted at times, collected a clearance well outside the Crystal Palace area, waited for the ball to bounce and belted a glorious volley at goal. The ball swerved viciously, arcing away from Wayne Hennessey, and Manchester United – improbably, if ultimately impressively, had plucked a victory from the dregs.
It was the kind of sucker punch from which Palace may struggle to recover, anchoring them beneath the relegation cut-off as it did. A second game in succession where they have been deflated late on against one of the elite. José Mourinho allowed himself a moment of manic celebration before sitting back in his dug-out to contemplate how his team had recovered a two-goal deficit to claim a 3-2 win. Roy Hodgson, further along the touchline, wore the expression of a man devoid of luck.
Palace’s slump over the last month had anchored them inside the bottom three prior to kick-off, with an entire team of senior players still ruled out with ligament damage, broken bones or assorted strains. Even after five years at this level, such a hefty list of walking wounded had inevitably left the collective crippled.
Yet those whom Hodgson had selected were as committed as ever and threatened to do more than merely resist. They had hassled and harried, just as they had with no reward against Tottenham Hotspur the previous weekend, but there was also a threat to their play with Alexander Sørloth closer to Christian Benteke and pace on both flanks. By the interval they had even chiselled out a lead upon which to cling, with United's play increasingly betraying their frustration. The crossfield passes flung from flank to flank were wilder, the body language more fraught with each misplaced pass and Paul Pogba resorting to flinging himself to the turf in the penalty area.
In amidst the anxiety, Alexis Sánchez never lost his edge. The Chilean has thrived here already this season, scoring twice for Arsenal towards the end of December, and had torn into the young full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka with relish. Andros Townsend, whose goal would separate the teams at the break, retreated to help the academy graduate, though Sánchez’s ability to glide in-field always carried menace. It was his delicious chip over Palace’s backline midway through the first half which Romelu Lukaku, muscling Patrick van Aanholt off the ball, marginally failed to reach with an outstretched boot.
When United went more direct from David de Gea’s punt, Lukaku’s flicked header and Jesse Lingard’s hook on, it was Sánchez whose header forced a startled Hennessey to block with a mixture of forehead and shoulder.
By then the visitors were engaged in a game of catch-up. Palace, with Townsend a nuisance on the flank, had made their typically bright start though, unlike against Spurs, here it yielded reward. James McArthur's pass had slipped Benteke into the channel down the left to attack Chris Smalling and cut back inside. The Belgian eked out the space to square across the edge of the penalty area where Townsend, unchecked, connected sweetly with his shot, critically, cannoning from Victor Lindelof and away from De Gea. The goalkeeper was wrong-footed and aghast as the ball looped into the top corner.
Life in arrears duly forced Mourinho to fling Marcus Rashford into the fray to test the impressive Wan-Bissaka. Yet, just as United prepared to whip up a storm, indecision gripped at the other end. Benteke, his aggression unnerving the visitors' backline, was dragged down by Nemanja Matic and, while the Serb disputed the award of the free-kick, Jeffrey Schlupp sent the untracked Van Aanholt scurrying alone into enemy territory. The full-back dispatched his finish cleanly inside De Gea's near-post with the visitors' rearguard still in tatters.
For a few minutes Palace basked in breathing space, but United were never likely to allow them that luxury for long. Hodgson's exasperation was that the visitors were rather presented with a route back into the contest, indecision gripping as Palace cleared a corner, allowing Antonio Valencia to clip over a cross which Smalling, played onside carelessly by James Tomkins, nodded easily into the net.
Thereafter the pressure became a frenzy, the hosts pinned back in desperate defence as United flung everything at them. Their pursuit of parity was relentless, with Matic somehow denied an equaliser by Benteke’s goal-line clearance even if the respite was brief. Palace were still digesting Saánchez’s shot looping from Kelly on to the angle of post and bar when Lukaku gathered, patiently teased out some space in a crowded penalty area, and finished crisply through a mass of bodies and beyond the indecisive Hennessey.
Even then, De Gea would be called upon to claw away Benteke’s header before Matic had his say. The denouement, not for the first time in these parts, was cruel. It was also emphatic.