Just when it looked like Manchester United had found their mojo again after all this time. A late free-kick from Michael Olise denied Erik ten Hag’s side a 10th successive win and second place in the Premier League after a first-half goal from Bruno Fernandes had seemed to provide yet more compelling evidence that the team which has been crowned champions of England more than any other could be serious title contenders once more.
With a trip to face leaders Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday to come, United now trail by eight points having played a game more but now it should be much closer after surrendering their advantage with almost the last kick of the game by a spirited Crystal Palace side.
A late yellow card for Casemiro which will rule United’s vital midfield cog out of the Arsenal showdown had seemed a minor blow for United but. after Marcus Rashford failed to continue his superb run of scoring in seven successive appearances it was ultimately Patrick Vieira’s side who were celebrating at full time as they avoided a fourth straight home defeat.
Not since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson had United recorded a 10th straight victory in all competitions, with the current run coinciding with what turned out to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last appearance for the club in the 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa back in November. The selection of Weghorst as the main striker after his arrival on loan from Burnley therefore represented the next stage of the Ten Hag revolution, with the Netherlands forward one of three changes.
By contrast, Palace have struggled to find their feet after the World Cup break and came into this game looking for a boost having scored only once from their last three home fixtures. Vieira handed a full Premier League debut to American defender Chris Richards, recalled midfielder Will Hughes and paired Jean-Philippe Mateta and Odsonne Édouard in his revamped forward line.
It was that combination that almost created the first opportunity for Édouard in the early minutes but the former Celtic man declined to shoot, with United immediately serving warning of the threat they posed on the break via the quicksilver feet of Rashford.
Luke Shaw half-volleyed a chance wide after 15 minutes following a delicious flick from Antony before Lisandro Martínez went down for treatment on a head injury and returned with a black bandage wrapped around his head. A moment’s hesitation from Tyrick Mitchell then allowed Antony a sight of goal but the Brazilian’s lob went harmlessly wide.
Bruno Fernandes (right) celebrates his goal with Christian Eriksen (left) and Manchester United debutant Wout Weghorst at Selhurst Park. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images
Some choice words between the former Ajax forward and Fernandes after they got their wires crossed in one move hinted at some growing frustrations for United and Weghorst should have done better with his first big chance after heading over a precise cross from Shaw. At the other end, Marc Guéhi connected with Olise’s free-kick but could not direct it goalbound as Palace found themselves limited to the occasional foray forward. That was until just before half-time, when Olise picked out Édouard on the edge of the box and it required a spectacular save from David de Gea to tip the French striker’s shot on to the crossbar.
Less than three minutes later, United made them pay when Rashford’s ball played in Christian Eriksen and his cutback found Fernandes acres of space to dispatch the ball past Vicente Guaita.
An early booking for Martínez after he was fooled by Olise’s skill on the touchline at the start of the second half was a warning that Palace would not go down without a fight and it took a brilliant interception from Casemiro to stop Édouard racing through on goal. But this United team has proven it has the stomach for a fight in recent weeks and began to control possession without looking likely to extend their lead. The introduction of Scott McTominay to replace Weghorst midway through the second half was perhaps an indication that Ten Hag was happy to protect what he had.
The Scotland midfielder thought he should have had a penalty after he went down in the area under a challenge from Richards but VAR showed there had been no contact. It required another sharp save from De Gea to keep out Guéhi’s header from Olise’s corner as Palace piled on the pressure in the final stages but United’s defence stood firm until Olise stepped up in the final minute to curl home a sumptuous free-kick off the underside of the crossbar that took all of the wind out of United’s sails.