It wasn’t quite in Fergie Time, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 88th-minute winner in the 2-1 win at Crystal Palace on Wednesday was a reminder of some of Manchester United’s late, late shows of years gone by. And with the giant striker and Paul Pogba at the heart of United’s triumph it was a timely reminder why the club went big in the transfer market in the summer.
While Henrikh Mkhitaryan has come up big in recent weeks, it was Ibrahimovic and Pogba of whom much was expected among Jose Mourinho’s close-season purchases. At Selhurst Park the pair combined at the end of each half to give United three priceless points.
Having bossed the majority of an aesthetically-abysmal first half, United finally got the breakthrough when Ibrahimovic chested down a free-kick from the left into the path of Pogba and the Frenchman slotted past Wayne Hennessey. It was ample reward for United, but also for Pogba after his influence had gradually grown through the half. Some of his earlier efforts had seemed somewhat forced but as the game went on he left an increasingly greater stamp on the proceedings.
After the break United needed to show they had learned from recent weeks and found a way to see out fixtures. Yet as soon as Palace began to ask questions of them in their own third around the hour mark you had a feeling that the equaliser was coming.
First Joe Ledley flashed a shot just wide of David de Gea’s left-hand post, then the Spaniard had to be at full stretch to keep out James McArthur’s shot which seemed destined for the top corner. McArthur soon followed up with the goal Palace had been threatening, burying a low shot pass De Gea after neat interplay, and United had lost yet another lead.
United could and perhaps should have bounced back soon after. First Marcos Rojo was prevented from heading on target by what appeared a fairly blatant handball by Ledley, then the Argentine's header down was tapped home by Juan Mata only for the scorer to be flagged for a non-existent offside. Perhaps United were paying for the law of averages evening things up after Rojo had earlier committed another two-footed challenge and, just as he had at Everton 10 days ago, found the referee flashing only a yellow card in his direction.
It was beginning to look like another hard luck story for Mourinho and his men. There will be talk of bad luck, and of refereeing decisions going against them, but ultimately United were staring down the barrel of another two dropped points because of a lost lead. It happened against Stoke City, Arsenal and Everton, and they had even failed to achieve the wider margin of victory they deserved when beating Tottenham 1-0 at the weekend.
But that victory over Spurs seemed to have given them refreshed belief, and there was always a feeling that United would break through again. Their two marquee signings completed the job. Zlatan teed up Pogba for the first, Pogba assisted Zlatan for the second.
United used to be famed for their ability to batter opponents for a full 90-plus minutes in order to get the winning goal, and their two big summer signings showed here tonight that they have that same commitment in plentiful supply.