If ever there was a game of two halves, this was it. For almost an hour at Selhurst Park last night, Manchester United resembled a boxer on the ropes, dazed and waiting for the bell.
They were 2 goals down to league strugglers Crystal Palace and facing a defeat that would leave them in third place, one point behind eternal rivals Liverpool, with the Reds visiting Old Trafford this coming weekend.
They didn’t even look like they had a chance of recovery. Patrick Van Aanholt’s goal to make it 2-0 was described as ‘disgraceful…childish’ by manager Jose Mourinho, and if anything he was being kind.
A quick free quick put the left back through on goal, ahead of the sleeping Unite defence. One on one with David De Gea, the defender scored with the kind of aplomb any top division striker would be proud of.
If this were a boxing match, all bets would have been off by this point.
Jose Mourinho, watching on flabbergasted from the bench, knew he had to act to rescue even a point from this tie. Marcus Rashford had already been subbed on, his presense on the left wing curtailing the advancement of rookie Palace right back Wan Bissaka, who was excellent despite this being only his second start for the club.
Within 5 minutes of conceding the second goal, United had pulled one back. A chip by Antonio Valencia from the edge of the box found an unmarked Chris Smalling, being played onside by James Tomkins after some appalling defending from a corner, who nodded the goal beyond Wayne Hennessey into the bottom right corner.
From there, United breathed into live. Mourinho decided to go for the jugular. On came Juan Mata and Luke Shaw, replacing his two full-backs Antionio Valencia and Ashley Young in a very attacking move. Jesse Lingard was placed as a marauding right back, Mata moving into his right wing birth, whilst Luke Shaw was under clear instruction to assault Palace’s right flank at every opportunity.
The move paid off and then some. Palace were pegged back almost immediately and a siege was laid to the Palace goal. It’s amazing how mentality can shift so easily in a game of football. Within 10 minutes, Palace had gone from cruising to barely holding on, whilst United had gone from dazed to alert.
With 15 minutes remaining, Romelu Lukaku drew level after some scrappy play in the box. Despite having several defenders around him, the Belgian managed to get a shot away that creeped passed Hennessy.
From there, only one team was going to win it. And that moment came in the most dramatic of ways in stoppage time.
With United going in search of a winner that would reinstate them in second place ahead of Liverpool’s visit on Saturday, the ball bounced around the edge of the box before Nemanja Matic decided to take matters into his own hands.
Controlling the ball 25 yards out, the Serbian measured up a shot, with every fan watching at home undoubtedly yelling ‘DON’T SHOOT!’ at their television sets. Matic has never scored for United and he’s hardly known for long-range thunder-strikes.
Perhaps we should revisit that statement. With one fell strike of his left foot, the Serb put enough pace and spin on the ball for it to fly past Hennessy in goal and nestle in the corner of the goal. Cue pandemonium in the away end.
It was Fergie time all over again; United, the jammy so and so’s of the 90s who won titles both at home and in Europe with last-minute winners, had done it again. Mourinho was delighted, as was every player on the field and every fan in the stands.
After the game, Mourinho barely discussed the shambles that had been the opening hour. He praised his side’s mentality. And that’s what won it for them; that will to win that has scarcely been seen since Ferguson retired almost 5 years ago.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The Liverpool game this weekend is huge, and after that United have a game at home to Sevilla in the Champions League to navigate. It’s a crucial part of the season and this last-gasp winner will undoubtedly give them a new energy to kick on.