With Fellaini returning and Januzaj sporting something that suggested he’d been holding a live flex for too long just prior to kick off, at Selhurst Park United added a brace of questionable haircuts to the armoury of unfamiliar characteristics on show this season. Another that made an appearance was an all-too familiar struggle to break down ordinary opposition for much of the game. Thankfully, some more welcome attributes made an appearance, specifically a more polished performance in the middle of the field and, especially, three away points for the first time in 2014.
United supporters having been warned, bizarrely, before kick off about the wearing of Cantona masks, Palace fans did their best to recreate the spirit of that infamous night by hurling abuse and all kinds of other stuff at Rooney every time he took a first half corner. One of these produced easily United’s best chance of the first half: the ball came back to him for a second bite and his floated cross-cum-shot was cleared off the line from Delaney, only to fall to Vidic, who headed over from close range.
Other than that, this was a first forty-five minutes in which United dominated possession, but did little to threaten the Palace goal. The only real opportunity other than that fell to Fellaini, who’d done well to win the ball in midfield but blazed wide when it was returned to him in the area. United had begun the match with the cherished front four of Mata, Januzaj, Rooney and Van Persie, but had laboured to do anything with the possession that the central midfielders – so often the butt of fans’ criticism this season – won for them. Fellaini looked far better for playing in a more advanced role, creating room for Carrick to operate in. There were frequently eight or nine home players in front of them, however, and those more advanced players were too often forced to come back to find space to work in.
Football, however, as has been observed on many occasions, is a strange game. Palace came out with more adventure in the second half and were even edging possession when United, exploiting the spaces the home side were beginning to leave, took the lead. Evra, venturing forward on the left, was brought down just inside the area by Chamakh and Van Persie made no mistake from the resulting penalty.
The game inevitably opened up further from there. Palace brought on Cameron Jerome and he almost made an immediate impact, his well struck shot forcing a fine save out of De Gea. Minutes later, however, United extended their lead. Once again it was Evra who caused problems on the left, this time cutting back for Rooney to bury an unstoppable shot in the top corner. With the home side committing players forward, Van Persie almost made it three in the next attack, his shot glancing off the crossbar and away from danger.
From there, the Reds saw the game out efficiently, another thing that hasn’t exactly been a given this season, to secure a hard-earned three points against a side who’ve become far meaner opponents under Tony Pulis. While the wait for the first goal had been a frustrating one, this was a good solid performance from United, even if celebrating the leapfrogging of Everton to secure sixth position is something that casts a rather chastening light on how things stand more generally.