Marouane Fellaini dragged Manchester United to a 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace that all-but secures their return to the UEFA Champions League next season.
Both sides came into the Premier League contest on the back of three-game runs without scoring, but any fears of a goalless stalemate were dispelled as Juan Mata netted the opener from the penalty spot after 19 minutes.
United’s injury woes returned as Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw were forced off with knocks sustained in the first half.
Things went from bad to worse as Selhurst Park erupted at the sight of half-time substitute Jason Puncheon curling home a free-kick 12 minutes into the second period.
However, United had star goalkeeper David de Gea to thank as he produced a spellbinding stop to deny Glenn Murray with Palace pushing for a winner.
And Fellaini popped up late on as Julian Speroni flapped under an Ashley Young cross to send United seven points clear of Liverpool – a gap that will be insurmountable if Brendan Rodgers’ man lose at champions Chelsea on Sunday.
Louis van Gaal once again had to make do without key United midfielder Michael Carrick, though Daley Blind stepped into the England man’s role capably and struck Speroni’s left-hand post early on from 25 yards.
Palace’s threat came predictably from out wide and Wilfried Zaha regularly had the beating of Antonio Valencia on his first game against United since leaving permanently in January, though the winger’s delivery let him down.
The hosts gifted United the opener as Scott Dann stooped to block Young’s centre, only to be punished for handball by referee Michael Oliver – Mata stepping up to beat Speroni from 12 yards.
Headaches soon arrived for Van Gaal, however, as captain Rooney struggled through the half with a thigh issue and Shaw was forced off with apparent concussion after catching a James McArthur elbow to the face, Jonny Evans replacing the teenager.
The United captain came out early for the second half in an attempt to prove his fitness, but he was withdrawn before play resumed, Radamel Falcao coming on in his place.
Palace boss Alan Pardew signalled his intent by replacing Joe Ledley with Puncheon at the break and he was swiftly rewarded as the former Southampton man stepped up to a 20-yard free-kick, whipping it over the wall and in via a slight nick off Blind.
Selhurst Park’s fervent support ramped up a notch as Palace looked to add United’s scalp to those collected against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City at home this term, but they found De Gea in stunning form.
The Spaniard somehow denied Murray six yards from goal before getting down smartly to keep out Zaha’s volley.
And Fellaini capitalised on his defence’s resilience, stealing in to nod home after Speroni’s error to take United to the cusp of a return to Europe’s top table.
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