Whatever Marcus Rashford does in a Manchester United shirt, it will struggle to surpass his work to combat child poverty. But the striker could enjoy his most fruitful performance since the Premier League restart as he helped his club to maintain their push for a Champions League finish.
Make no mistake, this was not the comfortable evening for United that the scoreline might suggest. Crystal Palace were committed opponents who found that the finest details were against them. The excellent Wilfried Zaha shouted in vain for a first-half penalty while Jordan Ayew had what would have been an equaliser pulled back by the tightest VAR offside call.
Rashford dragged United to a vital result. He changed the complexion of the game with a composed finish on 45 minutes before he helped to make the game safe with an assist for Anthony Martial after starting a slick United counter on halfway.
United had seen both Chelsea and Leicester win and they knew that their margin for error was minimal. The visitors’ long unbeaten run was the stand-out pre-match statistic but, really, it was the dropped points in Monday’s 2-2 home draw with Southampton that framed the contest, which ratcheted up the pressure.
Palace entered on a five-match losing streak but United were met by a team who wanted to prove they had not clocked off for the season. Roy Hodgson’s side were the brighter in the first half, with United wobbly at the back and uninspired going forward, and the hosts had the chances to have gone ahead.
James McArthur fed Zaha in the early running and he cut inside to strike for the near post. David De Gea pushed the ball away but it was a warning shot from Zaha. The ex-United winger roamed with menace and his opponents seemed wary about jumping in on him or getting too close.
The first half’s flashpoint arrived on 44 minutes – moments after De Gea had saved from Jordan Ayew – when Zaha ran at Victor Lindelof inside the United area, causing the visiting defender to get into something of a tangle. Lindelof swiped for the ball and both he and Zaha went to ground. Palace screamed for a penalty but Lindelof was deemed to have just about got the ball. Palace were unimpressed. “Is the VAR broken – serious question?” tweeted the Palace chairman, Steve Parish.
Moments later, United were ahead and it added up to a sucker punch for Palace. Bruno Fernandes swapped passes with Martial and played a pass into Rashford inside the area and, when the striker slammed on the brakes to cut back, he threw Patrick Van Aanholt to open up the chance to finish, which he duly did.
It was a moment of isolated quality from United during a first half in which they were thankful to De Gea; he would also push away a free-kick from Luka Milivojevic in the 45th minute. Harry Maguire fluffed one header from a corner when gloriously placed and flicked wide with another, while Mason Greenwood scuffed badly following a low Martial cut-back.
Zaha was a thorn in United’s side and he thought that he had helped Palace to the equaliser early in the second half, having beaten Aaron Wan-Bissaka and flashed a shot across goal for Ayew to turn in at the far post. The teams had lined up for the restart when the VAR check showed Ayew to have been fractionally offside.
Solskjaer had started Timothy Fosu-Mensah at left-back, with Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams injured; it was the Dutchman’s first appearance of the season and his first in a United shirt for 1,152 days. Palace stretched the United defence – James McCarthy worked De Gea from distance on the hour – and how United craved the comfort of a second goal. Rashford almost provided it on a quick counter only to shoot too close to Vicente Guaita while Fernandes struck the foot of the post from a Rashford cross. Rashford was not finished, although there was sourness for Palace when Van Aanholt was seriously injured trying to stop Martial with a last-ditch tackle.