Not quite bold Trafford, but United make quiet progress

Matteo Darmian (centre) celebrates with Juan Mata (No. 8) and Chris Smalling (No. 12), after scoring United's second goal to seal a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. Both sides will play in FA Cup semi-final ties this weekend.
Matteo Darmian (centre) celebrates with Juan Mata (No. 8) and Chris Smalling (No. 12), after scoring United's second goal to seal a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. Both sides will play in FA Cup semi-final ties this weekend.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Amid all of the noise, Manchester United's clandestine advance continues. This has been a season of sound at Old Trafford - the endless claim and counter-claim over Louis van Gaal's future, the pillow talk of Jose Mourinho, the stage whispers of insurrection and the mutinous howls of frustration.

For all that, though, their quiet creep up the table continues. A point behind Arsenal, two behind Manchester City - they remain in with a shout.

Even by their standards, this was quiet. Crystal Palace were dispatched 2-0 at walking pace. An own goal from Damien Delaney after four minutes drained any thoughts of defiance from Alan Pardew's team before they could even take root. Matteo Darmian reinforced the message after half-time, his first goal for the club effectively ending the match even as a shadow contest.

Old Trafford, too, was subdued, all four stands pockmarked with empty seats, United's fans evidently not enamoured either of the idea of their club targeting fourth place in the Premier League or of the manner in which van Gaal is choosing to go about it. Many fans, it seemed, decided they had rather more important things to do.

They were not the only ones. Pardew's priorities, certainly, lay elsewhere. Both of these sides have FA Cup semi-finals looming - United face Everton tomorrow evening, Palace meet Watford a day later - but their approaches were markedly different.

Van Gaal saw it as an opportunity, challenging his players to stake a claim for a place at Wembley; Pardew, on the other hand, treated it as nothing but an ordeal.

From the off, the visiting team were listless, distracted. Palace provided about as much resistance to United as fog.

In those circumstances, it was not hard for United to look good, even as they go backwards and forwards and never really get anywhere at all.

That is not to suggest there were no bright spots. Antonio Valencia, returning to fitness, offered thrust from right-back; Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial drove at the Palace rearguard; Wayne Rooney, playing as one of two No. 10s alongside Juan Mata, played with an intelligence and a poise he does not always possess.

There was no real need for a third goal. Palace did not want to cause any trouble, and now United were conscious of the need, too, to conserve energy ahead of their trip to Wembley.

"A trophy is of course fantastic, especially the FA Cup, but still we have to beat Everton first," said van Gaal.

But there are other targets to think of, too. For all the noise, United can still lay claim to a Champions League place, particularly with their rivals faltering.

That, ordinarily, would not be anything to shout about for a club of such grand ambitions. But if they can get it, van Gaal, in particular, might still be inclined to scream it from the rooftops.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'Not quite bold Trafford, but United make quiet progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe