Photo: ACTION IMAGES
New contract, same old Wayne Rooney. In the week he signed the most lucrative
contract in the club’s history, Rooney’s money shot sealed the points for Manchester
United after a deceptively frustrating display under the Saturday
night lights. Nobody at Old Trafford needs reminding of his value, but
having dodged the coins and the insults, Rooney’s half-volley, as crisp as a
fresh banknote, was timely to say the least.
Wayne Rooney hands a coin to the referee
Moreover, it concealed the fact that for an hour, the waking nightmare of
David Moyes looked like being prolonged indefinitely. Though they dominated
possession, United were maddeningly turgid at times. Robin van Persie’s
penalty finally got United up and running, and by the end they were able to
play with something approximating fluidity, allowing the visiting fans to
dream of a future when Rooney, Van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata live
in perfect harmony.
This was the first time that United’s blue-chip quartet had started in tandem.
Moyes picked a team to excite, something his team have been doing all too
infrequently this season. It felt like a watershed moment, and in more than
one respect: a first tentative glimpse at United’s gold-plated future, but
also an end to the excuses. This is not a front four that should really be
gracing the Europa League.
Each, it could be argued, was in their favourite position: Van Persie lurking
threateningly on the shoulder of the last man, Rooney roving, Januzaj
drifting in off the left wing, Mata dropping back to receive the ball, a
bridge between midfield and attack. Tony Pulis, for his part, sent his side
out with a back four as deep-set as his gaze. And almost immediately,
United’s problem became apparent.
For as brilliant and varied as United’s front four were – are? – they have a
frustrating habit of wanting to attack the same space. Countless moves would
begin: from deep, from the left, from the right, from the channels. And
every time, the man in possession would be faced with the same unappetising,
heavily-marked options, none wider than the D. United were like a band with
one song, the same three chords, over and over, to fade.
Content to cede the flanks, Pulis had built himself a human fort on the edge
of the penalty area. And with one or two exceptions, it held firm. Crystal
Palace were even able to threaten occasionally. Jonathan Parr’s
header deflected off Chris Smalling’s thigh, forcing a sharp save by David
de Gea at his near post. Marouane Chamakh had a header saved from Tom Ince’s
United, to be fair, did carve out chances. Januzaj dragged wide after a neat
one-two with Van Persie. Nemanja Vidic headed over from three yards after
Damien Delaney had cleared Rooney’s cross. Rooney had a shot of his own
easily saved from 22 yards. But these were pot shots. The one occasion that
United assembled anything approaching their traditional vigour was when
Chamakh was dispossessed by Rooney. Rooney played in Van Persie. Offside.
And so it was left to Marouane Fellaini to fashion United’s best chance of the
first half. The Belgian midfielder started a move that ended with the ball
at his feet, 14 yards out. The old Fellaini would have leathered it, and
scored. The new, frightened Fellaini tried to place it into the top corner,
Moyes, for his part, rarely ventured out of the dugout, like a chef who has
prepared a particularly bland risotto, and is now too embarrassed to leave
the kitchen. Half-time came and went.
Palace actually began the second half a little more brightly. De Gea was
momentarily after Mile Jedinak’s long diagonal ball was volleyed first-time
by Glenn Murray. Murray, making his first start in nine months after a
horrific knee injury, was a living emblem of Palace’s ability to defeat the
odds. It was his extra-time goal three years ago that won a League Cup tie
at Old Trafford, back when such a feat was truly extraordinary.
United needed something – a deflection, a shin, a ricochet off Fellaini’s
coccyx, anything. In fact, the deadlock was broken courtesy of an
exceptionally precise piece of refereeing from Michael Oliver.
It was Patrice Evra, making a rare advance from left back, who won the penalty
on the very cusp of the area, receiving Januzaj’s pass and bracing himself
for the contact from Chamakh that he knew was coming. A soft penalty, a
marginal penalty, but a penalty nonetheless. Van Persie put the spot-kick
away, although there must have been a part of him that considered crossing
Murray came off, his night’s work done. Cameron Jerome replaced him, and
almost scored with his first touch, trying to curl the ball low around De
Gea’s fully-extended fingertips. Three minutes later, Evra advanced down the
left and cut the ball back to Rooney, who lashed at the ball with a gleeful
abandon that would surely not have been present had the game still been
goalless. Julian Speroni dived. Not a chance.
And so United were able to approach the last 20 minutes with a certain
comfort. Van Persie hit the bar with a sharp shot, and Fellaini went on to
enjoy one of his best games in a United shirt, as damningly faint praise as
that sounds. Palace were not quite done – substitute Yannick Bolasie tested
De Gea with a sharp shot – but having defended so staunchly for an hour, the
task of transforming themselves into a goal machine was always going to be
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