ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Norwich City 0
Manchester United 1
LONDON • For all the criticism directed at them, Manchester United and manager Louis van Gaal remain very much in business as a top-four finish and a Champions League spot are in their sights.
A goal by Juan Mata was enough for the Red Devils to scrape past Norwich City in a game that had few chances and little excitement. But none of that mattered to United as the three points moved them to within one of fourth-placed Manchester City, who play third-placed Arsenal at Eastlands today. After that match, United will have a game in hand over City.
Norwich, in 19th, also have two games left but they have been plunged into deeper turmoil.
United's under-fire manager van Gaal, however, was bullish about his future.
Said the Dutchman: "We are still in business, that is what I told the players. The players were very tired at the end but we won."
Just barely though. The cagey match at Carrow Road was settled by Mata's side-foot finish in the 72nd minute after a pass from captain Wayne Rooney.
United were dealt a blow ahead of kick-off as 15-goal striker Anthony Martial suffered an injury in the warm-up and was replaced by Ander Herrera.
Rooney became the focal point in a re-shaped United attack as van Gaal deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation.
But it was the hosts, with just two wins in their last 16 league games, who started brightly and almost scored in the third minute. Cameron Jerome's firm header was saved by the legs of United goalkeeper David de Gea.
United were forced into another change when left-back Matteo Darmian was stretchered off and replaced by teenager Cameron Borthwick-Jackson following a clash with Norwich's Ivo Pinto.
Darmian's injury looked serious and the Italian defender could be a doubt for the European Championship in France starting next month.
While United's attack struggled to find any rhythm in the opening 45 minutes, they were far better in possession and found more space in midfield after the break.
Norwich defender Sebastien Bassong, excellent in the first half as he shackled Rooney, misjudged a long ball from right-back Antonio Valencia and Rooney nipped in. The forward advanced into the box, swivelled and set up Mata, who stroked the ball beyond goalkeeper John Ruddy from 12 yards. It was Mata's fifth league goal against the Canaries - the most he has scored against any team in England's top division.
He said: "We controlled the game and had more chances to score goals. Today was about winning. We want to play and create chances but we won the game."
United have yet to string three consecutive league victories together this season but if they can record wins at West Ham and Bournemouth, Mata and Co. could yet have a chance of playing Champions League football next season.
He added: "We do everything for the fans. They have had a difficult season but deserve happiness."