Matteo Darmian’s first Manchester United goal helped to set up a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Wednesday as his side bolstered their hopes of Champions League qualification.
Two of the four FA Cup semi-finalists contested a game in which Darmian had a key role in both goals — the first an own goal from Palace defender Damien Delaney — as the visitors continued a miserable run that has seen them win just one league game since Christmas.
Victory lifted United to within one point of fourth-place Arsenal, who host West Bromwich Albion on Thursday, and their dominance of the game was such that they could have won more comfortably.
However, there was also the unfamiliar sight of thousands of empty seats at Old Trafford — an apparent sign that the style of football being played under Louis van Gaal is beginning to drive away supporters.
Despite some indifferent form of late, United’s hopes of a top-four finish remain alive and the early goal helped to keep that objective firmly in sight.
A determined run down the left by Italian full-back Darmian ended with a low cross into the six-yard area that the hapless Delaney inexplicably steered past visiting goalkeeper Julian Speroni.
Both clubs had an eye on the weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals — United play Everton on Saturday and Palace face Watford on Sunday — although it was visiting manager Alan Pardew who made the most sweeping changes, with seven in all.
Given that his team have won just one league game since Christmas and are still not mathematically sure of safety, it was a calculated gamble and one that United pressed to take advantage of.
Juan Mata’s probing chip into the area was well defended by Delaney, with Wayne Rooney poised, and the Spaniard also dispatched a low shot that sent Speroni diving sharply to smother.
Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, meanwhile, both found themselves in promising positions, but failed to pick out team-mates.
– Martial’s fierce shot –
There was brief respite as Lee Chung-Yong headed square at the other end for Emmanuel Adebayor, who volleyed meekly wide.
But Anthony Martial soon restored United’s territorial supremacy with a darting run and powerful right-foot shot from the edge of the area, which was parried by Speroni.
A second United goal looked increasingly imminent as a swift counter-attack ended with Rashford moving the ball on for Rooney, whose shot was held, at the second attempt, by the Palace goalkeeper.
Before the interval, Delaney almost claimed a second own goal after Martial’s cross deflected off his body, while Rashford and Lingard again tested Speroni with shots that were too close to the Palace number one.
Martial also had a clear run at the Palace goal and advanced to within 15 yards before unleashing a fierce shot that forced Speroni into his best save so far, diving to his left to keep out the effort one-handed.
Speroni continued to be the busiest man on the field after the interval, although he had assistance from defender Pape Souare, who made a telling block to intercept Rooney’s goal-bound shot.
The relief was brief for Speroni and Palace, however, as Rashford surged into the area and allowed the ball to break to Mata, whose shot was turned into the side netting by the goalkeeper at the expense of a corner.
Daley Blind’s kick from the left was headed out by Delaney, but only as far as Darmian, who took a neat touch on his chest on the edge of the area before finding the back of the Palace net via the left-hand post.
Rashford was unselfish, and unfortunate, just after the hour as he showed strength to shrug off a defender on the break, round Speroni and square to Lingard, who was denied by the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg.
The ball ran to Rashford, but Speroni sprang to his feet to complete an impressive double save