A Damien Delaney own goal and Matteo Darmians strike from distance gave Manchester United a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace that keeps them firmly in the hunt for a Champions League place.
Louis van Gaal is currently all about the result and not the display as Manchester United try to chase down Arsenal and Manchester City in the hunt for a Champions League place.
On Wednesday night the manager was given both as his team cruised past a soporific Crystal Palace, who judging by this effort are fifth-bottom for good reason. The victory takes United to 59 points, one behind Arsenal and two behind City, though the Gunners have a game in hand, hosting West Bromwich Albion on Thursday.
Asked if this display was perfect before Saturdays FA Cup semi-final against Everton Van Gaal stuck to his script. I want three points. That is the most important thing, he said. We needed three points and that is what I said to my players. We have to win and we must win and now is another game. First you can enjoy but you must recover also because within two days you have to play again.
Yet given the high stakes of this contest it was played out in a strangely muted atmosphere before an Old Trafford that was hardly packed. This reflects the apathetic feeling towards Van Gaals tenure and will surely trouble the executive should more numbers stay away in the final two home matches. Asked about this Van Gaal said: I didnt see quite a lot of empty seats but you have seen it because you want to see it. Then you have to write it tomorrow in your paper.
After City dropped two points at Newcastle the task for United was to take advantage and keep up their challenge for a top-four finish. Before this the first question concerned how Van Gaals men would line up. An XI that showed only Morgan Schneiderlin as a bona fide central midfielder meant the manager was shifting shape from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a loose 4-1-4-1, in which the middle quartet formed a diamond with Wayne Rooney at its tip behind Marcus Rashford.
If this was designed to wrongfoot the visitors, it worked inside five minutes. Old Trafford was still settling when Matteo Darmian, Uniteds left-back, moved along his flank and pinged over a cross. It appeared innocuous but not to poor Damien Delaney. He stabbed at the ball, then watched in dismay as it beat Julin Speroni to the visiting goalkeepers right.
Van Gaal has drilled his players incessantly in the art of keeping the ball and smothering opponents and for the next 10 minutes or so United pinned Alan Pardews team in their own half.
When Palace finally made it into United territory the foray was over in a flash and United again threatened along the right, via Jesse Lingard.
The closest Palace had thus far managed was a move engineered by Wilfried Zaha. The winger hit a ball in from the right, Lee Chung-yong headed back across goal, and Emmanuel Adebayor shinned his shot wide of David de Geas goal.
As the contest meandered and the stadium went close to quiet there was a jocular moment when Pardew hopped in irritation at a United challenge and the manager dropped his ever-present notebook on the pitch.
At the interval it remained 1-0 so United needed to convert their chances to kill Palace off or they would be vulnerable to a sucker punch that Pardews side had delivered at Arsenal on Sunday.
Perhaps this was the message Van Gaal gave his team because as soon as the action recommenced Rooney came close to doubling the lead. A shot with his left foot was goalbound but at the last moment out came Papa Souars leg and the ball was cleared.
The next time United threatened they did have a second. This came after Adrian Mariappa dispossessed Rashford in the area, the ball rolled to Juan Mata and his shot won a corner. When this came over from the left the ball broke to Darmian and the Italian finished with a sweet 20-yard effort that pinballed in off Speronis right post for the Italians first goal for the club.
This was a goal to go with his earlier assist though this did not come as a shock to Van Gaal. Darmian was surprising me on Monday in the training session, he said. We did a sort of finishing session and he was the top scorer in that time and we tried to exercise with his left and right foot and he did it also with his left foot like he did tonight.
From here it was a keep-ball exercise for United. They now travel to Wembley to meet Everton with morale high, especially given their opponents trouncing by Liverpool. Palace also have a semi-final, on Sunday against Watford. Pardew said: The FA Cup for United is a big event. For us it is a huge event. I could see a bit of blurred focus from our players. I can understand that.