LONDON, May 9- Marouane Fellaini’s late header moved Manchester United one step closer to a place in the Champions League as the Belgium midfielder sealed a 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Juan Mata had ended United’s three-game goal-drought with a 19th minute penalty and Fellaini clinched the win 12 minutes from time after Jason Puncheon had levelled for Palace.
The victory ended a run of three straight defeats for fourth placed United and put them seven points clear of fifth placed Liverpool, who realistically must beat champions Chelsea on Sunday if they are to have any chance of denying Louis van Gaal’s side a top four finish in the Premier League.
This was by no means a convincing win, but it does mean Van Gaal’s plans for next season, a process that began this week with the signing of Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven, should include the lure of a place in Europe’s elite club competition.
Van Gaal’s preparations were complicated by the late withdrawal of Robin van Persie because of a virus, with the Dutch striker joining the injured Angel Di Maria on the sidelines.
Like van Gaal, Palace manager Alan Pardew was anxious to halt a three-match losing streak and finish the season on a high after already guaranteeing a mid-table berth.
With van Persie missing and Radamel Falcao again consigned to the substitutes’ bench, Wayne Rooney was asked to lead the United attack with Fellaini operating just behind.
The first real threat, though, came from Dutch midfielder Daley Blind whose low, long range shot was turned onto a post by Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni.
Other than that, the home side coped comfortably, while winger Wilfried Zaha started the game looking as though he had a point to prove against his former club by repeatedly threatening United’s right flank.
– Penalty controversy –
Palace’s early promise, however, was brought to abrupt halt when referee Michael Oliver decided Scott Dann used his arm to block Ashley Young’s cross into the penalty area.
Dann claimed the ball had struck his chest but Spanish midfielder Mata kept his nerve until the protests had died down and placed the spot-kick inside Speroni’s right hand post.
United may have been fortunate to get the decision, but once ahead, they began to control the first half and would have been two up if Fellaini had not miscontrolled Ander Herrera’s cross when unmarked in front of goal.
The visitors, though, were disrupted first by the loss of left-back Luke Shaw, who was stretchered off after landing awkwardly, and then by the half-time withdrawal of Rooney with a thigh injury.
Added to that, Palace emerged for the second half with the look of a side that had been made aware a repeat of their first half showing was unacceptable.
They had already twice come close to levelling before Chris Smalling was adjudged to have held Glenn Murray just outside the United penalty area.
That gave Puncheon the chance to lift his free-kick over the defensive wall, helped by a deflection off Blind, and beyond goalkeeper David De Gea for the 57th minute equaliser.
Palace were now the better team and it took a superb one-handed save from De Gea to prevent Murray putting the hosts ahead.
But van Gaal’s side finally found a response when Fellaini took advantage of a collision between Speroni and centre-back Damien Delaney to head home from Young’s cross.