A late strike from Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave Manchester United a vital victory over Crystal Palace on Wednesday evening, as the Reds ran out 2-1 winners at Selhurst Park.
The Swede fired home with just two minutes of normal time remaining to secure the three points, after James McArthur had cancelled out Paul Pogba’s first-half opener.
Ahead of the game – United’s third in the space of six days – Jose Mourinho delivered on his promise to rotate players during a busy December, making four changes to the side that beat Tottenham.
Wayne Rooney was among those recalled to the starting line-up, and the captain had an early opportunity to break the deadlock, but couldn’t direct his header on target from Juan Mata’s cross after five minutes.
In truth, the hosts were hardly afforded a touch of the ball during the opening stages, with an eventual string of passes being greeted by cheers from the home fans. As has been the theme in recent weeks, Mourinho’s men were well on top, and went close again when Pogba curled a long-range effort over the bar.
Last-ditch defending then denied Rooney a clear goalscoring chance on 24 minutes, as Eric Bailly – slotting in at right-back in the absence of the suspended Antonio Valencia – burst forward from defence to provide an inviting low cross.
Bailly was involved again in a similar situation on the half-hour mark, this time picking out Rooney successfully. The Reds skipper looked for Ibrahimovic with a first-time pass, but the ball just skipped away from the Swedish striker. At the other end, Palace’s first real attack of note came via former United man Wilfried Zaha, who twisted and turned to find space on the left, but couldn’t pick out a team-mate with his delivery.
United were then denied twice in quick succession by Wayne Hennessey, as the Palace keeper firstly thwarted Rooney and then Pogba, who had both found space well inside the area. With just seconds remaining before the break, the Reds’ patience finally paid off, as Ibrahimovic chested Mata’s free-kick into Pogba’s path, allowing the Frenchman the easiest of finishes from six yards.
Possession: Palace 37% United 63%
Shots: Palace 2 United 9
Shots on target: Palace 0 United 3
Corners: Palace 0 United 3
Despite the setback, Palace started the second half on the front foot and came close to an equaliser almost immediately through half-time substitute Joe Ledley, who fired narrowly wide from range. The Reds were forced into a change of their own soon after, as Bailly – who had previously looked to be struggling with an injury – could no longer continue and had to be replaced by Matteo Darmian.
Things might have got worse for Mourinho’s men with 25 minutes remaining, but for a save-of-the-season contender from David De Gea. McArthur picked the ball up and ran towards goal, before unleashing a swerving effort that the Spaniard tipped away superbly.
The home side were knocking on the door, however, and got their reward three minutes later. This time, the Eagles midfielder got the better of De Gea, finishing off a flowing move from inside the box.
With the game really coming to life, United went in search of an immediate response, as Rooney drew a fingertip save from Hennessey. The pressure was building, as too was the sense of frustration for the Reds when referee Craig Pawson waved away claims for a penalty following an apparent handball by Ledley on 68 minutes.
That frustration was added to just moments later, too, when Mata tapped in Rojo’s header across goal, only for the offside flag to come to Palace’s rescue. Replays showed that the decision might have gone the other way, though it didn’t stop United pressing.
Sensing a goal, Mourinho rolled the dice, and brought on Jesse Lingard for the final quarter of the game. The winger was the next player to test Hennessey, shooting on the turn after being found by Ibrahimovic inside the area.
Thankfully, there was still time for some late drama, as Ibrahimovic raced onto Pogba’s superb pass to fire into the bottom right-hand corner, and send the travelling fans into raptures.
With a goal scored at the end of each half, it was a display which showed, if nothing else, the importance of fighting until the end. In true United fashion, Mourinho’s men did just that.
Possession: Palace 39% United 61%
Shots: Palace 6 United 16
Shots on target: Palace 3 United 6
Corners: Palace 1 United 7
United: De Gea, Bailly (Darmian 50), Jones, Rojo, Blind, Herrera, Carrick, Pogba, Mata (Lingard 71), Rooney (Rashford 80), Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: Romero, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Young.
Booked: Rojo, Pogba
Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly, McArthur (Campbell 85), Flamini (Ledley 45), Cabaye, Lee (Fryers 80), Zaha, Benteke.
Subs not used: Speroni, Husin, Townsend, Wan-Bissaka, Campbell.