Manchester United head to London in search of the season double over Crystal Palace on Monday evening. The Reds enter the match in high spirits after a come-from-behind win against Chelsea last weekend boosted them back into second place.
That Chelsea match had a lot riding on it — José Mourinho up against his former team (and Antonio Conte), Liverpool briefly jumping above United in the league table, and the club’s recent spotty record in big games. When Willian opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, it seemed like United were in for another long afternoon.
But Mourinho’s men showed their resolve and drew level shortly before the break. Romelu Lukaku, scorer of seven goals so far in 2018, struck a blow against his flat-track bully reputation with the equalizer. Then, in the second half, the Belgian frontman delivered an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Jesse Lingard for the winner.
The biggest story from the 2-1 win over Chelsea, though, might be the continued growth of Scott McTominay. In the last three matches — all of immense importance — Mourinho elevated the 21-year-old midfielder to the startling lineup and entrusted him with shackling the opposition’s star man.
And he’s done a remarkable job at it, visibly frustrating Sevilla’s Ever Banega and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard while marking them out of the game. McTominay hasn’t been perfect — he lost Willian for Chelsea’s opener at Old Trafford — but has still admirably filled the gap left by the injured Ander Herrera.
With Herrera still sidelined, there’s no reason to think the academy product will drop back to the bench anytime soon. Scott McTominay might be here to stay.
Marouane Fellaini, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo join Herrera on the injured list. Rojo and Jones are closest to returning, but Monday’s match at Selhurst Park will likely come too soon for them.
Crystal Palace currently cling to safety in 17th place, above the relegation zone only on goal differential. That’s actually a far sight better than their season started. Under Frank de Boer, Palace endured one of the worst starts in Premier League history — leading to his dismissal after only five matches in charge.
The South London club has rebounded a bit under the steady hand of Roy Hodgson, but a five-game winless run threatens to undo all of their hard work. Last time out, Palace lost to Tottenham Hotspur courtesy of a Harry Kane 88th minute heartbreaker. That dropped point may prove quite costly come season’s end.
Crystal Palace’s chairman, Steve Parish, sounded the alarm this week at a London sports conference: “We are in a difficult situation, make no mistake. People ask what I’m planning for — I’m planning for the Championship.”
If the club’s injury problems don’t let up, they just might end up there.
Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s most dangerous attacking threat, has been sidelined for weeks with a knee problem and Hodgson seems resigned to his absence. “Wilfried is recovering ahead of schedule, but he’s still mainly doing straight running,” the manager explained at his pre-match presser. “He’s not doing the more complicated twisting, turning, and contact with other players yet.”
It’s just as bad in defense, where Martin Kelly, Mamadou Sakho, and James Tomkins have all battled injuries. Kelly returned to training this week after nearly a month out with a bad hamstring, but Sakho and Tomkins are doubtful to play.
To make matters even worse, on-loan defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah will be unavailable to play against his parent club.
Around the new year, some reports suggested that Fosu-Mensah had fallen out of Hodgson’s plans and would be returned to Old Trafford early. But the 20-year-old defender clawed his way back into the picture and has established himself as an ever-present in Palace’s backline.
In fact, the young Dutch international played the full 90 minutes in Palace’s last nine matches in all competitions. That’s great news for Manchester United — the more experience the better for the loanee.
Back in September, United made short work of Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. Juan Mata opened the scoring after just three minutes and the Reds cruised to a 4-0 victory. Fellaini pitched in with a brace and Lukaku kept up his strong start in a red shirt with the afternoon’s final goal.
After the trip to Crystal Palace, Liverpool await at Old Trafford next weekend. The Northwest Derby kicks off a tough three-match home-stand for United, which includes Champions League and FA Cup ties. A good result on Monday should send the Reds into that stretch with plenty of belief and momentum.