How on earth did Manchester United win that?
Nemanja Matic’s mesmeric finish from distance in the 91st minute to clinch a stunning 3-2 win from 2-0 down at Crystal Palace was a goal which will live long in the memory. It couldn’t have been more out of keeping with United’s performance for much of the night, but the character displayed in digging themselves out of the self-created hole was what this night was ultimately about.
For 50 minutes, United were pathetic. From the first whistle they were all over the place, handing Palace the initiative with ragged, lifeless football. They seemed incapable of stringing more than a couple of passes together, and when attacks broke down the accusatory looks, yells and hand-waves were plentiful. The bickering was about the most consistent thing about United during that opening spell.
This was not a team. It was a group of individuals looking for other individuals to blame, or at least to pull them out of their own stupor. Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay were particularly off the mark in the first half, but it feels almost churlish to pick out a couple of names given the collective malaise.
But after they went 2-0 down it all changed. A Chris Smalling free header halved the deficit and suddenly you backed United to win it. Suddenly they were on the same wavelength again. Suddenly they were a true representation of their manager’s values again.
Mourinho will have been counting his lucky stars when he got his team back into the changing room at half-time only one goal behind. Andros Townsend’s deflected effort could easily have been the start of the landslide rather than the sole strike of a 45 minutes in which Palace looked hungry, ready to fight and fully understanding of their role in the team’s game plan. None of those values could have been attributed to the side in grey.
Marcus Rashford was thrown on for McTominay at the break and immediately looked to run at the home defence as no United player had managed in the first period, but there was another moment of horror to follow moments later as Smalling and Matic were among those to switch off at a quick free-kick. Patrick van Aanholt took advantage by bursting into space and beating David de Gea at his near post.
The 2-0 deficit finally kicked some life into United. After a couple of dangerous attacks, Smalling was allowed to roam free around the six-yard box as the second ball was sent in by Antonio Valencia and the centre-half headed beyond Wayne Hennessey.
Finally, there was a feeling around Selhurst Park that United had something about them and they began to really force the issue. It felt like an inevitability that they’d somehow get a result of some sort, and after a scramble in the box with 14 minutes to play Romelu Lukaku kept his cool, took an extra touch and rammed the ball home.
From there it was set up for a winner, but we can’t have known how glorious it would be when it came. After Palace half-cleared a United attack, the ball bounced up well for Matic. The Serbian connected superbly, sending a lovely dipping finish beyond Hennessey to send the travelling United hordes into delirium.
Their character was questioned on all forms of media at the break , but by full-time it was not in doubt. United, eventually, showed their bottle.