MAN UNITED 1, CRYSTAL PALACE 0
Substitute Juan Mata, squeezed out of Manchester United’s starting line up in recent weeks, spared the blushes as the Spanish midfield man scored their match-winning goal against Crystal Palace.
It looked as though Palace would pinch a point at Old Trafford until Mata, last season’s £37.8million capture from Chelsea,, struck midway through the second half as his goal earned the victory which lifts the Reds into sixth place in the Premier League.
It was, however, a far from convincing display from United who registered their first win in four league games against a well-organised Palace side.
United struggled to create chances despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and at times appearing to have too much of the ball.
Manager Louis van Gaal admitted it was a difficult afternoon saying: “The team has done what everyone in the stadium expected, but it was not as easy as expected.
“We have won and I am pleased as we picked up three points and are only two points behind fourth place. It is in our hands which is important.”
Van Gaal admitted his side had played better in previous matches, but he praised the patience of his team and also the way they killed off the game after taking the lead.
The Dutchman was pleased with a rare clean sheet, a first in seven games, but admitted it may well have been a different story had Palace punished an error and had Frazier Campbell given Palace a first-half lead.
United had a new centre-back partnership of Daley Blind and youngster Paddy McNair due to the injury to Marcos Rojo and absence of Chris Smalling through suspension.
The absences of Rojo and Smalling, who played in last Sunday’s Manchester, opened the door for McNair and Michael Carrick to be recalled as Blind dropped into defence to allow Carrick to slot into midfield.
They were the two changes from the side which kicked off Sunday’s Manchester derby while Palace were without suspended captain Mile Jedinak and Wilfried Zaha who was unable to play against his parent club.
For their total domination of possession, United created precious little and it wasn’t until the 27th minute that Palace keeper Julian Speroni was forced into action for the first time turning a shot from left-back Luke Shaw round the post for a corner. It followed a terrific run from defence.
Yet Palace, who had been completely outplayed, almost snatched the lead in the 40th minute when their defence was split by a long ball. United old-boy Campbell was clean through, but his lob flew well over the crossbar.
Palace manager Neil Warnock described it as a great chance adding they will never get a better opportunity to win at Old Trafford and it would have been interesting had they taken the lead at that stage of the match.
United start to crank up the pressure at the start of the second half when Wayne Rooney shot narrowly wide while a headed from Marouane Fellaini was cleared off the line by James McArthur.
And the breakthrough finally came in the 67th minute and less than four minutes through Mata less than four minutes after he had made his entrance.
Mata played a return pass with Angel Di Maria and then saw his drive from outside the box deflect off the head of Damien Delaney as Speroni was finally beaten.
And Mata almost doubled the lead with seven minutes left when his shot struck the upright as they looked to kill off the game.