Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed why Jose Mourinho has staked his reputation on him by saving Manchester United from another humiliating night with a sublime match-winning goal.
The Swedish striker is being paid around €12m-a-year in what is supposed to be the twilight of his career. But the 35-year-old remains United’s most potent force as he displayed with great timing to secure the points with a brilliant 88th-minute winner.
It was ultimately no more than United deserved on a night when Crystal Palace threatened to get a point or even more from a game in which they offered little and was dominated by poor refereeing decisions.
Paul Pogba had given United the lead on the stroke of half-time only for his dubious effort to be cancelled out by a stunning James McArthur equaliser which seemed to be sending the game towards an unsatisfactory draw for the visitors.
No wonder Mourinho ran on the pitch to celebrate with his players at the final whistle. It was almost as if the Portuguese manager felt he had won a final so delighted was he to get out of London with a win.
United attacked, or tried to, from the start while Palace seemed to look to attack on the break with the pace of players such as Wilfried Zaha. It was a risky tactic against a United side looking more confident again after a comfortable win over Tottenham last time out.
But it was not all easy viewing for Mourinho, who named four central defenders in his back four. With Antonio Valencia suspended and Chris Smalling injured, there were few options, but Mourinho must have been feeling a bit twitchy when right-back for the night Eric Bailly went down looking as if would not be able to play on.
Kicking United was about the only way Palace could get close to the ball for much of the first half, but it did not phase Bailly, who nearly created a great opening for the recalled Rooney with a run and low cross down the right.
Another Rooney chance was instantly followed by a Palace break which was only ended by a two-footed foul by Marcos Rojo on Zaha, which earned him a booking, but could have been more.
United midfielder Michael Carrick then teed up Pogba with a tricky chance wide on the left, but the Frenchman’s sweetly struck first-time volley from an angle produced a great stop from keeper Wayne Hennessey.
But there was nothing Palace’s last line of defence could do to stop Pogba’s controversial goal on the stroke of half-time. A Juan Mata free-kick at first appeared to be sublimely chested by Ibrahimovic into the path of the Frenchman, who could not fail to miss from close range. Replays seemed to indicate that the chest was more of a handball and Pogba was offside.
No wonder Palace fans booed off referee Craig Pawson when he then blew for the end of the first half and when he started the second period.
Either way, Rojo was still there, United were in front and the goal prompted Palace manager Alan Pardew to make a change for the start of the second half as Joe Ledley replaced former Arsenal man Mathieu Flamini to bring a premature end to his first appearance of the season.
And the switch almost paid instant dividends as the Welsh international midfielder went within inches of scoring an equaliser just moments after the restart with a rasping right-foot shot from 25 yards.
David De Gea might have had that one covered had it hit the target, but the Spanish keeper had to pluck one from going into his top corner with a brilliant full-stretch stop from McArthur on the hour.
Six minutes later and De Gea had no chance of stopping McArthur from scoring from close range at the end of a scintillating passing Palace move.
They passed the ball like Barcelona, leaving United defenders standing like statues before the defence was split by a deft back heel flick from Damien Delaney, who passed into the path of an unmarked McArthur.
Selhurst Park was rocking as only the older Premier League grounds can these days, but United responded strongly and should have had a penalty when Ledley was guilty of a blatant handball.
Mata then had an effort possibly harshly ruled out for offside and Pogba picked up a booking for something he said to Pawson. This was not the referee’s night and the players knew it.
Palace were happy to play for a point now and that tactic came problems of its own as Hennessey had to produce a good save to deny substitute Jesse Lingard from scoring a late winner.
Rooney, never comfortable playing as a wide midfielder, was withdrawn with ten minutes to go as Mourinho pressed for a winner. The England man reacted angrily on the touchline as his attempt to equal Bobby Charlton’s 249 goal club record ended in disappointment yet again.
Then came Ibrahimovic with a great finish from a tight angle and they all ended up smiling together.
Hennessey 7; Ward 6, Dann 6, Delaney 7, Kelly 6; McArthur 7, Flamini 6 (Ledley 45, 7); Cabaye 7, Lee 5 (Fryers 80, 6), Zaha 7; C.Benteke 6.
De Gea 7; Bailly 6 (Darmian 6, 52), Jones 6, Rojo 5, Blind 5; Carrick 7, Herrera 6; Mata 6, Pogba 6, Rooney 6 (Rashford 80, 6): Ibrahimovic 7.
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