Manchester United might have looked to football for some respite after a summer when their captain was given a suspended prison sentence in Greece and their teenage prodigy was sent home in something resembling disgrace from his first England call-up. They found none in their first game of the season.
Donny van de Beek might have opened his account on his debut, but only in a game defined by a man they recruited seven years ago.
Wilfried Zaha was, famously, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final buy, the bequest to David Moyes that the younger man did not want and whom he only granted 28 minutes of league football. Given the full 90 by Roy Hodgson and watched by Ferguson, Zaha scored twice, ran United ragged and secured Palace a second successive win at Old Trafford on Saturday.
The visitors scored three times and it is no exaggeration to say it could have been six. Zaha had a goal chalked off, Victor Lindelof endured a torrid time and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s defence looked as porous as Hodgson’s rearguard was redoubtable. This was an awful start for United. Their 14-game Premier League unbeaten run, stretching back to January and incorporating all of Bruno Fernandes’ time at the club, came to an abrupt end.
Zaha finished it off, drilling a shot past a static David de Gea to remove any hope Van de Beek had given United in his cameo, the midfielder who came on for Paul Pogba providing a predatory finish after the ball bounced off Joel Ward and into his path. It was United’s lone clinical moment. Mason Greenwood, whose place on the bench initially might have been attributable to his eventful summer, came on to head wide, but otherwise United were restricted to long-range efforts.
Hodgson has been drilling teams in how to defend in two blocks of four for much of the last four-and-a-half decades, and Palace produced a masterclass in resistance. They had finished last season with a solitary point in eight games, which was enough to see them installed among the relegation favourites. Organised and compact with a counter-attacking threat, they are instead early-season pacesetters.
And they made a fast start. Solskjaer’s gambit of leaving Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the bench failed inside eight minutes when his deputy, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and Lindelof failed to stop Jeffrey Schlupp and the latter’s cross was met by Andros Townsend, who evaded the other United full-back, Luke Shaw, with similar ease to finish. Solskjaer looked perplexed, even though problems on either side of the defence were a reason why Sevilla eliminated United from the Europa League.
David de Gea made a brilliant save on the stroke of half-time to stop Jordan Ayew from doubling Palace’s lead, his agile reactions offering a reminder of times when his place went unquestioned. Yet it was a sign of Palace’s menace on the break, just as it was when the offside Zaha had a goal disallowed, and De Gea’s second fine save was in vain.
It came amid the controversy of a twice-taken penalty, awarded by a combination of VAR Jonathan Moss and referee Martin Atkinson. The latter looked at his pitchside monitor to decide that Lindelof had handled Ayew’s shot. The striker’s poor spot kick was repelled by De Gea, only for Moss to bring another intervention by determining the goalkeeper had moved off his line. Palace were permitted to change penalty taker and Zaha scored in emphatic fashion; it was a goal his performance merited as Palace’s acting captain tormented Harry Maguire, playing as if with a point to prove on his return to Old Trafford.
Zaha completed his evening with his second and Palace’s third, and United’s summer of discontent continued.