Manchester United 1-3 Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha scores twice as Red Devils endure nightmare start to the season with Andros Townsend also on target for visitors while Donny van de Beek scores on United debut at Old Trafford
Manchester United’s close season from Hell followed a trail of destruction and misadventure that took them from a jail in Mykonos to a hotel room in Reykjavik and a failed assignation in Dortmund. If they hoped that their first game of a new campaign would bring them sanctuary at home, they were sadly mistaken. Their nightmare continued.
This was supposed to be a season when United began to close the gap that has been allowed to open up between them and Liverpool and Manchester City but this defeat made that look like a fantasy. The vagaries of the staggered start to the new season mean that United are already six points behind Everton and Palace. There is a long way to go but things already feel rather bleak at Old Trafford.
United had endured a rather unfortunate pre-season. Even though it was truncated this year, they managed to pack rather a lot of trouble into it. Their captain, Harry Maguire, led the way with his misadventures in Mykonos and their rising star, Mason Greenwood, was sent home from England’s trip to Iceland for flouting the country’s quarantine regulations with international teammate Phil Foden.
For some reason, Solskjaer saw fit to revisit that subject on Friday, complaining that England had picked Greenwood for the squad in the first place and that they had then had the temerity to allow him to talk to the media before he made his debut. England under Gareth Southgate have tried to treat their players like adults. It is not their fault if some players have let them down.
Solskjaer’s intervention served only to strain the club’s relationship with England and ensure that Greenwood’s name was plastered all over the back pages again on Saturday morning just when everyone was starting to forget about his misdemeanour in Reykjavik. It made it feel as though United were facing adversity before the season began.
Even though there was general approval for their signing of Van de Beek from Ajax, their transfer window has been dominated so far by their faltering pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s England star Jadon Sancho. United’s reluctance to pay more than £100m to secure his signature has led to another outpouring of discontent among United supporters.
The Sancho saga coupled with Chelsea’s transfer splurge, Liverpool’s spectacular late swoops for Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota and Spurs’ snatching of Gareth Bale has reawakened concerns among the club’s supporters about the club’s competence in the market and its ability to bolster Solskjaer’s attempts to move United back into a position where one day they will challenge for the title again.
There were even suggestions that the United hierarchy was annoyed by the reaction on social media to its lack of transfer activity. That felt a little odd coming from a club whose managing director Richard Arnold boasted earlier this year that the signing of bit-part player Odion Ighalo was the top trend on Twitter. It is hard to feed the monster and starve it at the same time.
Van de Beek is a good signing but, taken alone, he will not be enough to get United closer to Liverpool and Manchester City. In fact, with Chelsea spending big and Arsenal showing signs of rejuvenation under Mikel Arteta, United are beginning the season looking over their shoulders rather marching confidently ahead.
Solskjaer sprang a minor surprise with his starting selection by picking Paul Pogba even though he has only just recovered from a bout of coronavirus and leaving Van de Beek on the bench. Greenwood, too, was among the substitutes. Maguire began his rehabilitation in the centre of defence. David de Gea was chosen ahead of Dean Henderson.
Palace had not scored away from home in the Premier League for seven hours and seven minutes before the game kicked off. Inevitably, it took them seven minutes to put that right. United started sluggishly and Palace took advantage. Jeffrey Schlupp outstripped Victor Lindelof down the United right and crossed the ball to the back post. Luke Shaw was caught napping and Townsend stole in front of him to clip the ball past De Gea.
De Gea looked tentative with the ball at his feet and nearly put United deeper into trouble on two occasions. Henderson is an ambitious understudy who may find his chance comes soon. United continued to look discomforted by the pace of Townsend and Wilf Zaha on the break. Their own build-ups looked laboured by comparison.
They did create some pressure. Scott McTominay curled a shot just wide. Pogba and Fernandes forced saves out of Vicente Guaita and United’s best chance game when Guaita raced out of his area to hoof a through ball clear and only succeeded in slicing it into the air. Marcus Rashford waited for it to drop but Guaita rushing to regain his ground, Joel Ward clambered all over Rashford to nod the ball clear.
United still looked horribly susceptible to Palace counters and in first-half injury time, they nearly went further behind. Zaha was the instigator once again, carrying the ball from the halfway line and running at Lindelof. He rode a couple of challenges and laid the ball out to Jordan Ayew who cut inside and unleashed a fierce drive that was heading for the roof of the net until it was brilliantly pushed over by De Gea.
Palace started the second half more brightly than United, too. Ayew should have played in Zaha rather than go it alone, Townsend’s shot was deflected over the bar and even though United dominated possession, Pogba and Maguire gave the ball away to allow Palace to set up fresh raids.
Despite that, United should have equalised after an hour. Greenwood had been brought on for James at half time and when Timothy Fosu-Mensah curled in a fine cross, England forward lost his marker and found himself with a free header at the back post. When he steered it wide, he looked disgusted with himself.
After Zaha had had a goal ruled out for offside midway through the half, Van de Beek was brought on in place of Pogba for his debut but almost immediately, Palace was awarded a penalty when Ayew tried to chip the ball over De Gea and it hit Lindelof on the arm. Referee Martin Atkinson allowed play to continue but then checked replays on the pitchside monitor and awarded the kick.
The decision appeared desperately harsh but the handball law has become so arcane and interpretations of it so rigid that sometimes its implementation can only provoke despair and anger. Ayew took the penalty. His run-up was languid and his kick lacked power or precision and it was saved low to his right by De Gea. It appeared justice had been done.
United celebrated but their relief was short-lived. Replays showed De Gea had moved marginally off his line before the kick was taken and so Palace were given a second chance. This time it was taken by Zaha and he rifled it into the roof of the net. There were only 16 minutes to go. Solskjaer held his head in his hands.
United pulled a goal back six minutes later when the ball ricocheted around the Palace area and Van de Beek sidefooted it home with assurance but Palace sealed their victory in the 85thminute when Zaha got the better of Lindelof on the edge of the United box and lashed a low shot past De Gea from 12 yards.