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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Manchester United recover from van Gaal-esque first half to complete dramatic comeback at Crystal Palace

Second half goals, including a last minute strike from Nemanja Matic, saw Mourinho's side claim victory at Selhurst Park having trailed 2-0.

Nemanja Matic, centre, scored the winner for Manchester United in the final seconds of the game against Crystal Palace on Monday. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images
Nemanja Matic, centre, scored the winner for Manchester United in the final seconds of the game against Crystal Palace on Monday. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images

Manchester United’s first half performance at Crystal Palace on Monday was as bad as anything seen in the turgid Louis van Gaal era at the club.

A team which hadn't conceded more than two goals in a game all season were 2-0 down after 48 minutes to an injury-hit, relegation threatened Palace side who had won only two of their previous 10 league games. A Palace side who hadn’t beaten United in any game since 1991 and have lost 17 and drawn three of their 20 games since.

United were limp, lacked width and looked to be heading to a third successive away league defeat after Patrick van Aanholt put his side 2-0 up on 48 minutes after shoddy United defending.

Jose Mourinho described his own side’s defending as “disgraceful, childish” for that second goal. Talking on British television, former United player Gary Neville said: “I’ve never seen a Jose Mourinho team as inefficient as this, I don’t recognise this, he won’t recognise this. It’s just individuals.”

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And that was before the second goal, which followed an 11th minute opener that came from a Christian Benteke pass to Andros Townsend, whose left-foot shot deflected heavily off Victor Lindelof and past David de Gea into the top corner of the Spaniard’s net.

When the went two goals down, the United players waited to kick-off again, several with their hands on their hips. They looked defeated, beaten, as if the strong words from Mourinho at half-time had made little difference.

United’s star players, the biggest names, had done nothing, while young midfielder Scott McTominay was replaced during the break as Mourinho switched his tactics. Marcus Rashford was a big improvement on the man who has chosen to play international football for Scotland.

Selhurst Park was buzzing, the home fans loud and proud on a cold South London night. In rookie full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a 20-year-old starting because on-loan Timothy Fosu Mensah can’t play against his parent club, they have a talented player.

Palace had been beaten 4-0 at Old Trafford in September when they were eight points adrift at the bottom of the table, but looked like a much better team under Roy Hodgson – even without nine injured first team players. A win would have pushed them up to 13th in the tight relegation battle.

United had slipped to third before the game behind this Saturday’s opponents Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s team have won praise for their attacking football; Mourinho’s United don’t score as many or concede as many.

They are far from a vintage United, but they have been second in the Premier League for most of season, they are well placed in the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League and in the FA Cup too, but the glass can look half empty when they play as wretchedly as they did at Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, or in the first half at Selhurst Park.

And then, the fight back. First Chris Smalling was played onside by James Tomkins and the United central defender, so often a scapegoat among his own fans, headed in an Antonio Valencia cross after 55 minutes.

The 3,000 United fans in the away end, many of whom had made a six hour trip south by road from Manchester, were stirred as their team finally began to play. They thought United had equalised, but Nemanja Matic’s shot was cleared off the line by Benteke. Juan Mata replaced Ashley Young to add even more attacking force. The Spaniard isn’t featuring as often as he would like, but he remains influential and found space his teammates had struggled to in the first half.

United were dominant and Alexis Sanchez, another of the first half no-shows, hit the bar before the in-form Romelu Lukaku had to time to level after 76 minutes. It was the first time he had scored in consecutive league games since mid-December.

Yet, Palace had their own chances. Fortunately, United have David de Gea. The Spaniard produced another incredible save – he makes them with the regularity that Lionel Messi scores great goals – this time from Benteke’s point blank header.

Mourinho, always animated on the touchline as substitute Luke Shaw kept finding out, kicked an empty bottle in anger towards the crowd. He apologised and Palace fans applauded him.

They weren’t clapping when Matic’s brilliant stoppage-time shot flew into the Palace goal. The grey-shirted visitors ran towards the away end, united in delight as fans and players hugged each other.

The winner came in what used to be called "Fergie time", and indeed Mourinho had engineered a great comeback worthy of one of Alex Ferguson’s United sides. For Palace, it meant they stayed in the relegation zone.