Robin van Persie zipped home a first half penalty, and Wayne Rooney fired an 81st minute free kick to give Manchester United a dull but deserved 2-0 victory over 10-man Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
Referee Jon Moss, who, by the way was spot on with three major decisions, rightly denying three previous penalty appeals and booking Ashley Young for diving (again! will he ever learn?), but subsequently sending-off Kagisho Dikgacoi for bringing down the winger on the edge of the box in the 44th minute.
Van Persie converted from the spot, cooly wrong siding Crystal Palace keeper Speroni. The confirmation of the 3 points did not come until the 81st minute when Rooney, who was donning a headband to protect the gash sustained from a Phil Jones training challenge, curled home an excellent free-kick.
- Wayne Rooney edges the MOM award for his brilliant free-kick, his vision, and most importantly, his desire to win which was apparent from the first whistle. This, despite United’s lack of clinicality and conviction in the final third.
- Goal of the match: Rooney’s swerving free kick resulted in his first goal since March 10 minutes from time which curled low just beyond Speroni’s reach into the bottom corner.
- Move of the match: Rooney's long ball between the central defenders was superbly brought down by Van Persie on his chest before thudding a volley against the upper-side of the crossbar.
- Save of the match: Speroni was the busier goalkeeper and made a great reaction save to stop a Marouane Fellaini volley from the edge of the box.
In spite of having a numerical superiority for the entire second half, United’s play in the final third was diasappointing. The final pass, cross or shot was always lacking that bit of quality needed to put Palace to the sword.
United had two penalty appeals inside the first 15 minutes, first when Patrice Evra tumbled under Mile Jedinak's challenge and the second as Young's attempted cross struck Danny Gabbidon, but on both occasions Moss got the decision exactly right and waved play on.
The official did blow his whistle soon after as Young managed to break between two defenders into the box and went to ground after Dikgacoi made contact, but it was a warning to the United winger for a dive for which he received a deserved yellow card.
For all United’s dominance and possession (60% - 40%), Moyes' men were coming up short of ideas in and around Palace’s box.
Palace were so close to a smash and grab lead as a searching cross-field ball was misjudged by an almost static Rio Ferdinand, with Dwight Gayle getting in behind the centre-back and lifting his effort over the shoulder of the kneeling De Gea but went a foot beyond the far post.
It seemed that Palace would keep it to dead-lock until half-time, but Young again hit the deck with an imposing challenge from behind by Dikgacoi on the edge of the box. Moss decided on a penalty this time. The man in black really could not be faulted as numerous TV replays were inconclusive, but Young was absolved of trying to hoodwink the officials again, as Moss took a breath, and checked with his fellow officials before pointing to the spot.
Replays showed the initial contact was outside the area, but with the speed of movement and momentum, Young was well inside the box by the time he was flat on the turf. Moss pointed to the spot and had to dismiss the Palace midfielder, allowing Van Persie to cooly send Speroni the wrong way from 12 yards.
Fellaini strode into the action for his debut appearance in the 62nd minute, with the former Everton man receiving a warm welcome from the Old Trafford fans. He looked comfortable and moved the ball well before, in the 67th minute he chested down a clearance 25 yards from Palace’s goal before cracking a shot which had Speroni scrambling across the six yard box to save, and the Old Trafford faithful scrambling to their feet to applaud. Van Persie's curled shot just seconds later whizzed just inches over, somewhat akin to his goal for the Netherlands during the week.
Whilst United dominated, there was always the fear they would pay for their profligacy in the final attacking third. Antonio Valencia was as industrious as ever on the right wing, and he superbly combined with the lithely impressive Adnan Januzaj when he was introduced by Moyes, only as ever for the Ecuadorian’s final ball to be lacking a bit of precision and quality in the final third. Valencia would be an amazing player if he had more control and confidence on his left foot.
United’s overall performance was not inspiring confidence in on-lookers of a sustained title challenge. Liverpool outclassed them at Anfield as United looked tired and laboured through the motions, while Liverpool’s passing was one-touch, short, snappy and filled with progressive movement.
Moyes was questionably under the influence when he announced in the Anfield post-match interview that he thought United put in their best performance of the season in against the Merseysiders.
Since then though, we have had the re-introduction of a motivated Rooney, and solid performances from Fellaini and Januzaj. One would hope that with time and familiarity that these players will contribute to more cohesion and quality in the attacking third.