Manchester United applied pressure on neighbours City ahead of the Blues’ clash with Arsenal on Sunday thanks to a narrow 1-0 win at Norwich City.
Juan Mata scored the only goal of the match to boost the Reds’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions League but compounded the Canaries’ relegation worries.
Despite the importance of the game for both teams, it was the most low key of opening halves with precious few moments of excitement. Perhaps the loss of Anthony Martial in the warm-up, with the injured Frenchman replaced by midfielder Ander Herrera, blunted the Reds’ attack and Louis van Gaal’s team was further depleted when Matteo Darmian was forced off on a stretcher early on. Daley Blind and Marcus Rashford were already rested for the clash and not included the squad.
There was a clear opportunity as early as the fourth minute as Cameron Jerome could only steer a header against David De Gea’s knees from point-blank range following a cross by Nathan Redmond. However, this failed to set the tone for a disappointing period as United struggled to make any headway towards John Ruddy’s goal.
A first attempt on goal for the visitors arrived on 29 minutes, when Chris Smalling nodded over Mata’s corner after climbing above Jerome, and it was followed with the only United shot on target of the first half, a Jesse Lingard attempt bent tamely into Ruddy’s arms.
Memphis Depay’s free-kick straight into the wall summed up the frustration and the first 45 minutes dwindled to a close despite three minutes of stoppage time being played.
Herrera slipped as he volleyed a penetrative pass from Mata wide as van Gaal’s men started the second period with more thrust, without testing Ruddy. Norwich did manage sights of goal as Gary O’Neil sliced a speculative shot wide and Jerome mistimed a header before the breakthrough arrived at the other end with 18 minutes left.
Antonio Valencia’s ball over the top was misjudged by Sebastien Bassong and Rooney advanced towards goal. The captain had to check inside both Russell Martin and Bassong but had the presence of mind to lay the ball into the path of Mata, who arrived on cue to steer home a side-footed finish.
Jerome sent another header wide but substitute Morgan Schneiderlin should have made the points safe on 85 minutes, instead firing wide after being sent clear by Rooney’s precise pass. Memphis curled a free-kick just the wrong side of Ruddy’s right-hand post and Herrera fired over in stoppage time as the visitors remained in control. The hard-fought success may not have been pretty but it means United will head to West Ham on Tuesday will all still to play for in the race for a top-four slot.