Ashley Young the star as Manchester United defeat battling Crystal Palace
The race for the fourth and final Champions League spot in England's top tier before today was one that had the potential to go down to the final game of the season. Manchester City and Arsenal are effectively guaranteed a return to Europe's elite competition, with Manchester United and Liverpool in direct competition to secure a top-four berth. United had faltered in recent weeks as they, along with hosts Crystal Palace, came into this fixture on the back of three consecutive Premier League defeats.
Looking to right their recent wrongs, United's Daley Blind forced a good save from Julian Speroni in the opening 10 minutes from 25-yards after the Dutchman found himself in space to shoot. Blind let fly with a low drive, only for the Palace goalkeeper to turn his goalbound effort onto the post and out for a United corner. Speroni was unable to deny the visitors from opening the scoring after 20 minutes, however. Michael Olivier pointed to the spot after Ashley Young's cross was deemed to have struck Scott Dann's arm, with Juan Mata duly dispatching of the resulting penalty.
The Spaniard's goal was United's first in 306 minutes of top-flight action and eased the nerves of the away side, with Palace in the ascendency prior to the penalty. Mile Jedinak then came close to dragging the Eagles level, but his header from a Joe Ledley corner curled just wide of David de Gea's post.
Puncheon introduction vitalises Palace
After a disappointing 45 minutes from Palace, Jason Puncheon was introduced at the interval in place of Joe Ledley. Alan Pardew's side lacked creativity in the final third in the first half, so the decision to introduce Puncheon for the restart was logical. The attacker almost made an early impact after it appeared as though he was fouled by Mata in the United penalty area, but Olivier elected to wave away the protests of the Palace players. There was to be no denying Puncheon moments later, though, as his free kick deflected off Blind and past De Gea to draw Palace level.
Puncheon's effort ended a run of 355 minutes without a league goal for Palace and they came perilously close to netting a second in quick succession, but James McArthur could only poke his effort the wrong side of United's far post. Glenn Murray then forced De Gea into a fine save from six yards as the Eagles pressed for a second having been buoyed by the introduction of Puncheon. At the other end, Young drove into the Palace box, only to see his deflected shot trickle inches wide as United strived to restore their lead.
Louis van Gaal's side looked to up the ante as this fixture neared its climax and were rewarded for their efforts in the closing stages. Young, who was United's most potent attacking threat over the 90 minutes, cut onto his right foot and picked out Marouane Fellaini at the back post. The Belgian held off the challenge of Jedinak and Pape Souare to head into an empty net after Speroni misjudged the flight of the cross and failed to punch the ball clear.
Palace huffed and puffed in search of an equaliser, with the returning Marouane Chamakh forcing De Gea into an smart stop with his feet, but Palace ultimately succumbed to their 4th consecutive defeat as United emerged victorious to secure a 2-1 win in south London.
The win for United opened up a seven point gap between themselves and Liverpool in the race for the final Champions League place and it was little less than they deserved from a fixture they dominated for large periods. Van Gaal's side enjoyed a higher share of possession (57%) in Saturday's evening encounter, though it's worth noting that the victory would not have been made possible were it not for Young. The England international is enjoying a splendid season under Van Gaal and he rewarded the faith shown in him once more with a fine display at Selhurst Park.
Young was WhoScored's man of the match with a rating of 8.75 and was pivotal for United, playing the cross that resulted in the visitors' first half penalty, before providing the assist for Fellaini's winner as the game came to a head. No player completed more successful dribbles (4) than Young in the encounter, while the former Watford wideman played the most key passes (4) in the fixture. Joel Ward endured a torrid 90 minutes at right-back against Young with his WhoScored rating against United (6.51) falling way below his seasonal average in the Premier League this campaign (7.04).
Unsurprisingly, a majority of United's attacks came down the left side (36%) and it was clear the onus was to get Young on the ball as much as possible in order to break down the Palace defence. While Van Gaal opted to call on his in-form creator to provide the ammunition to attack, the same cannot be said of Pardew, who elected to start Puncheon from the bench in this one. Without the 28-year-old, however, the Eagles lacked the cutting edge in dangerous positions, though that improved significantly once he was brought on for the second half. Not only did Puncheon net to draw the hosts level, but his influence saw him gain a WhoScored rating of 7.37, the best of all Palace players despite only featuring for 45 minutes.
With Puncheon on the pitch, Palace looked a far more balanced side, with Pardew reverting to a more familiar looking 4-3-3 formation after the interval having initially lined up in a 4-2-3-1. The most telling indicator of Puncheon's effect came in the shot count for the home side. In a more rigid set up, Palace mustered just 2 shots on goal in the first half, but 11 in the second, with the London outfit more fluid with Puncheon on the pitch.
"We couldn't get to grips until we changed shape," Pardew admitted after the full time whistle, with the decision to replace Ledley with Puncheon in midfield having the desired effect for his team. However, it was not enough to secure the share the spoils as United picked up an important victory in their march to fourth place. The win was a "big step closer to our goal" Van Gaal said afterwards and should Liverpool fail to overcome Chelsea on Sunday, the Dutch boss will have achieved his aim of landing a top-four berth with two games to spare.