Three points is three points. But if we’re being honest: Manchester United went to Selhurst Park, and stunk the place out. Still, if the performance was never impressive and rarely competent, a spirited second half proved to be enough to overcome an injury-riddled Crystal Palace.
It was a first half of contrasts for United, they were bad without the ball, and then they were bad with it. For the first 15 minutes or so, they were a wobbly mess, totally unable to deal with Crystal Palace’s rambunctious front two. Victor Lindelof looked particularly shaky whenever the ball rose above knee height, and it was appropriate — if perhaps a touch unfortunate — that he was the one who deflected Andros Townsend’s shot past David de Gea.
After that, United managed to get some possession, though they failed utterly to construct anything with it. Passes were sent trundling into touch, overlaps were missed, and grey shirt after grey shirt was bundled out of possession. Alexis Sanchez was perhaps the least impressive, though Paul Pogba wasn’t far behind. If United had turned in that first half performance against Chelsea, they’d have lost comfortably; if they do so against Liverpool, they’ll get eaten alive.
The second half had to be better, and it started out much, much worse. As Palace prepared to take a free-kick, Chris Smalling fell asleep, and Patrick van Aanholt gleefully ran into the box and thumped the ball past David de Gea. It was among the more embarrassing goals United have conceded this season, and Mourinho was visibly disgusted. More so than usual.
After that, it all got a bit stretched. United got themselves back into the game after Palace, not to be outdone in the poor defending stakes, decided not to bother clearing the box after a set piece. Antonio Valencia chipped the ball onto Chris Smalling’s head, and the defender made some amends for his earlier brainfade.
As time slipped away, Palace dropped deeper and deeper, and United — though never truly fluent — got closer and closer. As the game moved into the last 15 minutes, an Alexis Sanchez shot took a deflection, bounced off the crossbar, and fell to Romelu Lukaku. He delayed his shot once, twice, then drove it home through a crowd. United, finally, were buzzing ...
... so, naturally, David de Gea immediately had to make a back-snapping save up the other end.
Just as your correspondent was typing “The winner never came,” it did. As the clock tipped over into injury time, another incoherent United attack came to an end ... or so it seemed. The ball was repulsed from Palace’s penalty area but fell to Nemanja Matic, lurking 20 yards out. He took a moment, and a touch, and then slammed a swerving, dipping volley past Hennessey and into the corner of the net.
Three points, and back into second. It wasn’t pretty. It certainly wasn’t good. But while United may not have looked much like a Mourinho team, they pulled out a late winner and so, in the decisive moment, looked pleasingly like a United team. A relief.