Injury-hit Manchester United made it 14 unbeaten under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with Romelu Lukaku stepping in to score a brace, as Crystal Palace fall to defeat at home again on Wednesday night.
It all started after a to-and-fro first half hour, as Luke Shaw broke forward unchallenged by any Palace player, and laid it off to Lukaku who curled it home past a statuesque Vincente Guaita, to put the visitors ahead.
It was two for United and two for Lukaku 20 minutes later, as a corner was flicked on by the centre-back partnership of Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf finding its way to the Belgian striker. He was too strong for James Tomkins and lofted the ball over the Palace keeper to near enough kill off the game less than 10 minutes into the second half.
The game was not dead though, as Palace got back into the game just after the hour mark with Joel Ward, retaining his place in the starting XI ahead of the injured Aaron Wan-Bissaka, getting on to the end of a Jeffery Schlupp cross to finish from six yards.
The resurgence didn’t last long though as Manchester United did indeed finish the game off with Paul Pogba finding Ashley Young after a slick United move, and the England defender made it 3-1 for the visitors and more importantly three points in the race for the top four. Palace thought they had a consolation goal in stoppage time when Christian Benteke headed the ball into the back of the net, but it was ruled out for a foul on the United keeper David De Gea.
Lukaku steps up… into the top 20.
It’s not been a vintage season so far for the big Belgian, having seen his place spearheading the Manchester United attack go to Marcus Rashford, who has excelled under OGS. Lukaku has managed to rack up nine goals so far in the league this season, which is lower than the 13 he had accumulated by this point last season, but it’s more the overall contribution to the team that has seen a downturn with only the solitary assist compared to the six he had this time last year.
However, with United missing some players like Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, who have been key in the turnaround in form for the Red Devils under their legendary Norwegian, Lukaku has certainly stepped up as required, notching up a brace that sees him climb into some elite company. Those two goals mean he has now amassed 111 Premier League goals, which sees him firstly surpass Emile Heskey (110) and draw him level with Dion Dublin in 20th place on the top 20 all-time leading Premier League goal scorers. Next up in his sights is Crystal Palace legend Ian Wright, who has 113.
Hosts with the mostest
If there’s one thing that can be said about Crystal Palace, it’s that rarely ruin your clean sheet record when you come to visit. The Eagles are certainly more threatening force when playing away from their nest. If the season was decided on home form alone, then Palace would be in the relegation zone, with only Southampton and Huddersfield below them. They’ve only won three of their 13 Premier League games at Selhurst Park, and although they’ve done well defensively, conceding just 15 goals including the three to United, they have only scored 10.
On the contrary, their away form would see them comfortably among the mid-table mediocrity. It is a problem that has to be addressed, as it is an issue that has plagued them since their return to the top flight. The way they set up, to sit with a rigid defence than attack sides on the counter-attack, which is not what happens when teams come to South London. As the home side, Palace are expected (in most matches anyway) to have a majority of the possession, where they struggle to break down sides to pretty much set up like they do away from home. If Palace are to move away from fighting relegation battles each season, they have to be winning more games at home, or at the very least, scoring more.
Job offer in the post?
It seems to be a comment made after every game now, that Solskjær must surely be in prime position to be offered the role of Manchester United manager on a more permanent basis. Before the game, he was already the first Premier League manager to get 26 points in his first 11 games at a new club, which you can now knock up to 29 in 12. United are unbeaten in 14 games and have won all of their last eight away games, a new club record.
Currently sitting in 5th place, they are not only 5 points behind Tottenham in 3rd, having been 13 points adrift of 3rd place Spurs when Solskjær took over in December. If this form continues, and even regardless of if United go on to lift some silverware, whether it’s the Champions League or FA Cup, then it will be a tough call for Edward Woodward and his team to not offer the Norwegian the job, especially when he has the support of the United fanbase behind him. Try telling those fans you want to bring in someone else after the few months they’ve had recently.
Double duty for Palace
Although it’s another defeat at home, Palace only fell the one place to 14th, with Newcastle climbing above them. However, there may be four teams between them and a place in the relegation zone, but it is only a slim margin of five points. They now have two hugely important games coming up against the two sides directly below them, Burnley and Brighton. The next couple of games could make or break for Palace’s season, with a win in both virtually securing their Premier League survival (or at least taking huge steps towards it), or defeats could render them right in the midst of the fight for survival.
One distraction could come from the cup run they are currently on. Now, nobody wants to class a chance to reach a FA Cup semi-final a distraction, but the form and confidence that they are getting from a win in the cup is not being fully transferred into their league form which continues to be up and down and fairly inconsistent.
The South London side should be safe come to the end of May, but nothing is certain, the next couple of weeks with the games against Burnley, rivals Brighton, and the FA Cup quarter-final with Watford to come, the goals and targets set for how the Palace team and fans want for the end of the season could change drastically, for better or worse.