Ole Gunnar Solskjær must be wondering where all the goals have gone. A third successive goalless draw may have extended Manchester United’s unbeaten away record to 21 Premier League matches but another timid performance that yielded one shot on target despite an array of talent on display was further evidence that the manager still has plenty of work to do.
Now 14 points behind their neighbours as Manchester City’s procession to a third league title in four years continues, United laboured in attack throughout against opponents who are made in the image of their manager, Roy Hodgson. It was another triumph of defensive organisation for Palace and there was no doubt who left the dugout in a better mood at the final whistle, with Sunday’s Manchester derby now looming large.
Solskjær revealed before kick-off that David de Gea’s absence from the matchday squad was due to “personal reasons” as Dean Henderson made only his third league start of the season – one of four changes from the side that drew with Chelsea on Sunday. With Edinson Cavani spearheading an attacking formation that also featured a strangely subdued Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, it was clear United wanted to make up for the Stamford Bridge stalemate. Leicester’s draw at Burnley earlier on also offered further incentive for United to cement themselves in second spot, even if they know they stand little chance of catching City whatever the result at the weekend.
Palace had only six shots in their past two matches yet still picked up four points towards their bid to survive for another season despite the absence of Wilfried Zaha. The Ivory Coast international was deemed not fit enough to return against his former club having scored twice in Palace’s 3-1 victory at Old Trafford earlier in the season but Palace haven gone three matches unbeaten without their talismanhim. Hodgson made one change from the side that started the 0-0 draw with Fulham here on Sunday and it was the hosts who made the more impressive start on a misty evening in south London that must have made it hard for United’s players wearing their black and white ‘Zebra’ third kit.
A mistake from Harry Maguire almost ended in another Christian Benteke wonder goal after he was picked out by Andros Townsend but this time the Belgian striker’s effort sailed high into the Sainsbury’s End. It took a spectacular save from Vicente Guaita to deny a shot from Nemanja Matic after it deflected wickedly off James McCarthy, with the Spaniard at full stretch to tip the ball over the bar. Cavani should then have scored from the resulting corner following a goalbound header that fell at his feet after inadvertently striking Rashford, who also passed up a good opportunity moments later.
Greenwood was next to try his luck with a shot that deflected wide as United began to dominate possession and territory but Palace also looked threatening when Eberechi Eze or Jordan Ayew had the ball at their feet in advanced positions.
United have only been ahead at half-time in six Premier League matches so far this season but Cavani almost made it seven when a brilliant cross from Aaron Wan-Bissaka against his former club was intercepted at the very last moment by Joel Ward.
Palace, who knew that a victory would move them above Leeds into 11th spot, were once again quickest out of the blocks in the second half as another acrobatic effort from Benteke deflected over for a comer before Ayew stung Henderson’s gloves with a powerful shot from just inside the area. Hodgson had made clear his unhappiness that this game was “thrusted” upon his players after it was brought forward from later in the month to allow United to play their FA Cup quarter-final against Leicester on 21 March instead.
Yet if they were feeling the exertions of the backs-to-the-wall performances in their past two matches, Palace certainly did not show it. A volley from Townsend that bobbled just wide of the post was another warning shot for United as they once more struggled to find any attacking rhythm. “Move the ball. Side to side,” bellowed a frustrated Solskjær as another move broke down on the edge of Palace’s box. A heated exchange between Rashford and Maguire after the forward was caught offside also showed frustration was clearly mounting.
It was not until substitute Daniel James saw his header deflected over the bar by Patrick van Aanholt that United even looked like scoring. Greenwood’s effort from just outside the area that flew narrowly over the bar as the fog descended quickly was the closest they came, with Van Aanholt then failing to take a chance that would have given Palace their first home victory over United in the Premier League, at the 12th attempt, thanks to Henderson’s save. Solskjær should probably be grateful for small mercies.