Desperation or smart business? Opinions on Wayne Rooney’s massive new contract vary wildly, but on this day he at least provided a goal to savor to secure Manchester United a much-needed 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Against a Palace side who played with extreme caution and deference to opponents who came into the match on a woeful run of form, United controlled the encounter from the off. Chances, however, were few and far between until Marouane Chamakh felled Patrice Evra in the box just past the hour mark and Robin van Persie put away the penalty. Just a few minutes later Rooney sent a shot careering into the top corner of the net to make the points safe and celebrate the bumper new deal inked just 24 hours earlier in style.
On the back of just two wins in seven Premier League outings in 2014, United must have had some trepidation about heading to face a Palace side that no team now relishes playing under the no-nonsense management of Tony Pulis. But rather than test the resolve of the struggling champions, Palace were happy to merely sit back. It was a plan admittedly implemented well until Chamakh’s piece of recklessness in the box, although one can only now wonder what might have happened had they opted for a bolder approach.
To their credit, it was a controlled performance by David Moyes’s side and will breed some confidence ahead of the Champions League clash with Olympiakos on Tuesday. Solid, rather than spectacular, would certainly be a fitting description, something that Moyes will gladly take right now. The issues going forward were still in evident. For the first time, Rooney, Van Persie, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj all started together. Not helped by a stifling Palace performance, neither shone and particularly concerning was how little Van Persie saw of the ball, yet there were more encouraging signs in how especially in Mata’s greater influence.
Januzaj did have the ball in the net early on, but the whistle had rightly already gone for a handball as the teenager controlled it into his path. Meanwhile, Rooney came close to providing a goal when his chip to the back post being headed away from under his own bar by Damien Delaney before Nemanja Vidic headed over the bar.
Palace possession was few and far between and their forward forays even more limited, but they did still threaten the opposition goal. David de Gea had to get down swiftly low to his right to keep out a header from Jonathan Parr that deflected off the knee of Chris Smalling as United’s defense showed signs of its recent fragility. The home side might have had a penalty, too, when Mata landed a boot on the upper body of Chamakh in the box.
It was United, though, that went into the half-time interval with the greater frustration at not being ahead. In his first appearance for over two months, Marouane Fellaini had an opportunity to silence some of his critics when the ball fell into his path 15 yards from goal, but he got his left-footed shot all wrong and the ball screwed horribly wide.
Still Palace failed to adjust their cautious approach at the start of the second half. And while, with their back four kept narrow and wingers dropping to become almost full-backs, they were frustrating their opponents, there was a sense that it was only a matter of time before United’s quality would tell in the final third. Pulis will doubtless still be furious at how complicit one of his own players was in their downfall.
There was no great danger as Evra went to receive a pass inside on the edge of the box, but Chamakh steamed into him, leaving the referee with the simple decision to point to the spot. Van Persie sent Julian Speroni the wrong way with his penalty to leave Palace’s game plan undone.
Palace showed the occasional sign of what might have been had they been more positive from the off, but the horse had now bolted. And United took advantage of the greater space now afforded them to put the result beyond doubt. From Evra’s pull back, Rooney wound up his right foot and unleashed a venomous strike on the half-volley that curled away from Speroni and into the top corner.
Van Persie almost made the score-line more emphatic with a fierce shot that came back off the crossbar. Still, it was a rare positive day for United in this calendar year, as they move above Everton into sixth place, albeit with Moyes’s former side still having a game in hand.