Fifty years to the day since a skinny young Ulsterman by the name of George Best made his debut for Manchester United, there were times in this match when it became apparent why the modern-day team does not have anyone currently gracing the hallowed No.7 shirt. Fortunately for David Moyes, the guy who wears the No.20 does not do too badly and the fellow in the No.10, wearing a protective band over his stitched forehead, is not showing any outward signs of unhappiness with the club he tried to leave.
Neither Robin van Persie nor Wayne Rooney had the most distinguished game, in keeping with pretty much everyone in United’s colours, but it will still be reassuring for Moyes to have them both on the scoresheet. They have now scored 28 times in the 23 Premier League games they have started together and it did not need a body-language expert to see that Rooney, with arms aloft, looked perfectly happy with his first goal of the season.
It was a free-kick, curled exquisitely into the bottom corner towards the end of a game that included Marouane Fellaini being handed his debut, as a second-half substitute, and plenty of evidence that the street-sellers on Sir Matt Busby Way had been doing a fine trade in souvenir-wig sales to welcome the new £27.5m signing.
Van Persie had put the champions into the lead with a penalty at the end of the first half and that was the point at which the contest was effectively ended bearing in mind the grievous damage it inflicted on Crystal Palace, who simultaneously lost Kagisho Dikgacoi to a red card and had legitimate complaints about the alleged offence being outside the penalty area. Ian Holloway, serving a two-match touchline ban for a previous bout of refereeing demonology, summed up his frustration when he was asked in the post-match press conference for his reaction. Holloway simply turned his chair around so all we could see was his back. “This is probably safer,” he said, “and will save me a few quid in fines.”
A fully firing United would probably have made the extra man count far more effectively and there might have to be a significant improvement if they are to win the Manchester derby next weekend, not to mention Tuesday’s Champions League tie at home to Bayer Leverkusen. Moyes will be glad, however, to notch up his first Old Trafford win, especially with the added pressure of Sir Alex Ferguson watching from the stands, approximately 20 yards over his left shoulder.
This was Ferguson’s first time at a match since his retirement and it is just a shame, apart from the controversy for the penalty, that the occasion also included the latest incident in Ashley Young’s already bulging portfolio of diving offences. Young, lest it be forgotten, has previously been reprimanded by Ferguson for this kind of conniving and his latest offence smacked of a player with no apparent shame, featuring a Pires-style jutting out of his leg to initiate contact with Dikgacoi in an attempt to win a penalty. It has become a habit with Young and the referee, Jon Moss, saw straight through it. Young was shown a yellow card and it can only be hoped Moyes keeps to his promise to make it clear to his player he will not tolerate any repeat offences.
Young was also involved when Moss did point to the penalty spot and, this time, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. All the same, it was easy to understand Palace’s grievances because it was Young’s momentum that took him into the penalty area. It was little more than a tangle and difficult to know how Dikgacoi could particularly avoid it.
Moss, moreover, took so long pointing to the spot, having consulted his linesman through their earpieces, that there was the distinct impression he was not entirely clear and, if that was the case, it was too important a decision to make on the strength of probability. As soon as the penalty was awarded, it made the red card and the outcome of the match inevitable.
Holloway referred to the preceding attack when Dwight Gayle caught Rio Ferdinand badly out of position, running in diagonally from the left, only to clip his shot over the advancing David de Gea, but wide of the far post. Yet Palace, with three debutants throughout the afternoon, barely threatened De Gea’s goal before or after that chance. Van Persie smacked a right-foot volley against the crossbar in the first half and Julián Speroni had a busy afternoon before Adnan Januzaj, a wispy 18-year-old getting his league debut as a substitute, won the free-kick from which Rooney secured the victory