Manchester United entered the weekend desperate for success in front of goal. In fact, United were held scoreless in their previous three matches, strangely so, after a strong showing of attacking prowess in their last 4-2 victory against Manchester City. With only 6 points needed to clinch a 4th place finish and three matches to play, United were keen on returning to winning ways and improving their away record this season. Against mid-table opponents, Crystal Palace, surely United should return to their winning ways, finding the goal and defending their own staunchly.
Louis Van Gaal hoped his team could return to their winning form without changing their formation or his team selection too drastically. Starting the match were David De Gea in net, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw in defense, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Juan Mata in midfield, and Wayne Rooney starting as the lone striker.
Rooney's drought in goals extends beyond their last win to early April in their win against Aston Villa. Still, as Radamel Falcao and Robin Van Persie languish in terrible form, Rooney remains the best striking option in the United outfit and it remains a mystery who will start in his place this weekend should he be ruled out of playing against Arsenal due to the injury he picked up during the contest against Palace.
As the matches have proceeded recently, United dominated possession, dictated tempo, seemed to be on the cusp of scoring goal through their ball movement, but lacked the finishing quality necessary to net goals. Early in the match, Daley Blind found himself in space and hit a wonder strike toward goal. The ball would have found the bottom left corner of the net without the scrambling efforts of the Palace goalkeeper, who managed to barely direct the shot off outside of the post for a corner kick.
United's opening goal would come not too long after Blind's chance. Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini combined on the left wing, allowing Young to dribble his defender one on one. Young won the first battle, actually causing the first defender to lose his footing; next he played a cross into the box, which was played by the Palace defender's arm and not his chest for a handball in the penalty area, immediately awarded by referee Michael Oliver. Juan Mata took the penalty shot, taking it very well. Crystal Palace's goalkeeper Julian Speroni guessed the right side, but even as well as he predicted and dove, the shot was placed well enough to beat him still. United 1, CP 0.
Shortly before the second half, Luke Shaw was struck by a brisk elbow, which prompted his substitution from the match per concussion protocols. Jonny Evans replaced Shaw and Phil Jones moved to left back. Wayne Rooney also picked up a knock to his thigh shortly before the whistle, continuing until the halftime whistle, but ultimately substituted for Radamel Falcao.
For the second week in a row, a poorly and unnecessarily conceded free kick just outside the area came back to haunt United. The culprit this week was Chris Smalling, who grabbed a hold of Palace's Glen Murray on a 50/50 header ball. Jason Puncheon took the resulting free kick precisely. He curled a shot just slightly deflecting off the head of Daley Blind. The shot had too much height to be saved by the outstretched De Gea, leveling the match at a goal apiece.
United's response proved they were more desperate for the three points and more fluid in their passing as well. Again, the offense was sparked by link-up play by Fellaini and Young down the left hand flank. Fellaini played Young through, then rushed to the back post, where Young's lofted cross flew over goalkeeper's punch attempt and found him wide open with the goal wide open. Fellaini tapped in the header to the joy of the travelling United supporters to give the Red Devils the lead. The matched finished without much more incident, United 2, Crystal Palace 0.
United's return to form comes at no better time as the club swirls a buzz with news of their latest incoming player, Memphis Depay, as well as the upcoming weekend's fixture against heated rivals, Arsenal. Injuries to Luke Shaw and Wayne Rooney will surely worry Van Gaal, but he must believe in the other players stepping up into their positions. This match against Arsenal will truly be a marker of each club's progress this season since their first match in late November, a 2-1 United victory that featured a high tempo Arsenal attack and a counter attacking United side. The match will be aired on Sunday May 17th at 11:00AM ET on NBC Sports Network.
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