By Sam Smith at Selhurst Park
Crystal Palace’s battle against relegation took a huge hit as Manchester United came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Selhurst Park.
A wonderful Nemanja Matic goal in added-time completed a remarkable turnaround, which had started when Chris Smalling headed home and was added to when Romelu Lukaku levelled.
It could have been far better for the Eagles as they led 2-0 early in the second half, only to be pegged back as they seemed destined for an unlikely win with a squad depleted by injuries.
Andros Townsend opened the scoring 12 minutes into the game, seeing his effort deflect in via Victor Lindelof. Patrick van Aanholt then raced through on goal three minutes into the second half to extend their advantage.
But poor defending and the moment of sheer quality from Matic in the final moments will most likely be the defining factor as Roy Hodgson’s side aim to remain in the top-flight for a sixth-successive season.
Hodgson made two changes to the side that was narrowly beaten 1-0 by Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Jeffrey Schlupp and Martin Kelly replaced Jairo Riedewald and the ineligible Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Riedewald dropped to the bench, which was also made up for the first time by January signing Jaroslaw Jach and new goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri.
Palace surprisingly began the game on the front foot, unlike the previous week where the service to the largely isolated Christian Benteke was poor against a typically resolute Tottenham defence. Alexander Sorloth joined the Belgian in a front two rather than the 4-3-3 in which he had started in a wider role in his previous two appearances, and almost had his first goal five minutes into the game but failed to connect with Townsend’s cross.
Townsend then gave Palace the lead but much of the credit for the goal lies with the endeavour and hold-up play of the much criticised Benteke. The forward was freed down the left-hand side and waited for support, eventually passing across the penalty area to Townsend whose curled effort took a big deflection off Lindelof which wrong-footed David De Gea, who could only watch on as the ball nestled into the opposite corner.
Sorloth came close again when he dispossessed the lackadaisical Lindelof and burst towards goal, only for De Gea to do well to hold the Norwegian’s powerful drive which was destined for the bottom corner.
The early goal settled nerves around Selhurst Park and the atmosphere in the opening half an hour was reminiscent of the ones present on famous nights in South London. The Eagles’ players were spurred on by the raucous and their adaptable approach was working well; Palace were perfectly happy to sit back and put pressure on the ball, but also perfectly adept at moving up the pitch and supporting the hard-working front pair.
The impressive Townsend came close again, this time driving an effort towards goal with his right foot but evading De Gea’s crossbar.
The visitors were woeful in the first half and their performance was epitomised by an inswinging Paul Pogba cross that evaded the frustrated Lukaku and curled harmlessly wide of Wayne Hennessey’s goal. Jesse Lingard came closest on 40 minutes but failed to recreate his 2016 FA Cup final winning goal against the Eagles and instead dragged his shot.
Scott McTominay was lucky to escape a wild lunge on Van Aanholt with just a yellow card just prior to half-time and the midfielder was replaced by Marcus Rashford at the break as the Red Devils seeked more ruthless attacking impetus.
The substitute almost equalised immediately as he got the better of young right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka but was crowded out by James Tomkins.
But despite Man United’s change of approach, it was Palace who doubled their lead three minutes into the second half. Benteke was fouled by Matic and with the visitors’ back four still high up the pitch and blissfully unaware of Palace’s clever thinking, Schlupp released Van Aanholt and he calmly swept the ball beyond the rooted De Gea.
Jose Mourinho’s side were improved on their first-half display and soon halved the deficit when Tomkins failed to push up follow a corner, allowing Smalling all the time in the world to guide a header into Hennessey’s bottom corner from Antonio Valencia’s cross.
The game had suddenly burst into life with each side intent on going forward at every opportunity. Benteke wasted an opportunity to score a third goal when he headed Van Aanholt’s cross wide, while at the other end Hennessey did well to tip a Pogba effort wide for a corner.
The final 15 minutes involved the visitors in Palace’s half desperate to find an equaliser that would lift them above Liverpool into second. Palace looked nervy and Benteke was forced to clear Matic’s effort off the line with United’s players insistent that it had instead entered the goal.
And they eventually equalised through Lukaku, who – with a hint of handball – collected the ball six yards from goal after Alexis Sanchez’s effort had hit the bar, swivelled and slid the ball under Hennessey.
De Gea was forced into a world-class save as he dived low to his right to make a one-handed push away to deny a seemingly goal-bound Benteke header.
And it was another moment of sheer quality that eventually decided the game a minute into stoppage time. Pogba had a shot deflected and the ball fell the way of Matic, who from all of 30 yards watched the ball drop and volleyed beyond the helpless Hennessey.
Palace remain in the bottom three on 27 points, one away from safety but their tough run of fixtures sees them travel to Chelsea on Saturday.
Palace: Hennessey; Wan-Bissaka, Kelly, Tomkins, Van Aanholt; Townsend, McArthur, Milivojevic, Schlupp (Riedewald, 83); Benteke, Townsend.