Crystal Palace 2-3 Manchester United Six Things: subs the key

Matic thumps home the winner –

Nemanja Matic broke Crystal Palace hearts with an injury-time winner for Manchester United, who were 3-2 victors at Selhurst Park thanks to an improved second half performance. Here’s six things from the game.

Palace’s early pressure

Roy Hodgson was brave enough to pick two tall forwards in Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth, who moved into a more central role after playing wide left the week before. Hodgson’s side showed intent to use the duo’s physical qualities in the first 10 minutes, with early balls into the final third that caused problems for Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof. After a mix-up from the pairing led to a fifth-minute corner, James Tomkins fired the first warning sign by acrobatically shooting wide.

Townsend’s opener

That warning though, United failed to heed: with Antonio Valencia caught too far up, Luka Milivojevic played one of his many crisp passes into the final third for Benteke, who drew Smalling out. The Belgian then held the ball up superbly and, unchallenged by the weak Scott McTominay and the then out-of-sorts Matic, laid it off for Andros Townsend to curl an excellent shot into the far corner. Central midfielders Milivojevic and the tenacious James McArthur moved into a deeper position after the opener, as Palace stayed largely in their defensive third.

Pogba wasn’t the problem

Manchester United thereon failed to break the Londoners down, mustering only a couple of crosses that Wayne Hennessey flapped at. The national TV coverage of their first half centred around Paul Pogba’s carelessness, but it could be argued that he and Alexis Sanchez were the only players actively trying to change the tempo. The biggest problem was that not enough players were on their wavelength. McTominay and Matic’s forward thinking capabilities looked questionable, so did that of full-backs Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young: both lacked the pace to provide the width necessary to disrupt Palace’s narrow rear-guard. Moments after the break, Valencia and Matic were also out of position for the host’s second, which saw left-back Patrick Van Aanholt steal in and slot inside the near-post with the confidence of a centre-forward.

United’s new-found positivity

Marcus Rashford, who had replaced McTominay at the interval, injected some drive down United’s left while Valencia looked brighter. The Ecuadorian’s 55th-minute cross was headed home by Smalling, who Tomkins was guilty of playing onside. Luke Shaw and Juan Mata then came on to provide pace and composure respectively as the technical talents of Pogba and Sanchez was now monopolized with more positive runners around them. Romelu Lukaku was another beneficiary and he scored the 76th minute equalizer, keeping his cool in a congested penalty area to score after Alexis hit the bar.

Palace’s questionable bench

While United’s strong bench turned the game, so did the limited options available to Hodgson. The 70-year-old’s only tactical change, in a second half that saw Palace largely dominated, was to put sitting midfielder Jairo Riedwald on for Jeffrey Schlupp and move Sorloth to the left wing. Palace, who are without winger Wilfried Zaha through injury, badly needed a fresh attacking player on the bench with the pace required to threaten on the break and force United back, but no such player was there.

Eagles take it to the limit

Instead of causing problems of their own, Palace succumbed to the late pressure in the 91st minute. The danger appeared to be over when McArthur blocked Pogba’s effort and the ball fell to Matic – who had endured a poor evening – but the Serb unleashed a powerful effort from distance that flew into the bottom left-hand corner. Hennessey, who had been unconvincing all game, might have got a hand to that shot, thus furthering the sense of despair at Selhurst Park.

Red Devils reprieved

Despite an improved second half, dropped points in South London would have increased the pressure and scrutiny on Jose Mourinho’s side ahead of Saturday’s North-West Derby. Naturally, the stature of the club necessitates such attention but put into perspective, this season holds many positives for The Red Devils. They are still in two competitions – the Champions League and the FA Cup – and thanks to Matic’s strike, they remain on course to finish second. While that might not be the pinnacle, it would be their highest finish in the post-Fergie era.