HOLD the champagne and put the bunting away.
Manchester United’s Premier League title dreams are on the back burner after their nine-match winning run was brought to a dramatic end at Selhurst Park.
ReutersBruno Fernandes’ opener looked to have won the game for United[/caption]
GettyMichael Olise’ stunner earned Crystal Palace a point[/caption]
And now they must travel to League leaders Arsenal on Sunday without midfield general Casemiro, who collected his fifth booking of the season and will now be suspended for United’s biggest game of the season.
It was a bitter pill for the travelling fans to swallow after it looked for all the world as though their team were firmly on course for a tenth straight victory.
But then Luke Shaw tripped Jeffrey Schlupp on the edge of the area and Olise delivered an inch perfect free-kick off the underside bar and over the line.
Yet even that cruel denouement should not take the gloss off another encouraging performance for a United team who are now level on points with the noisy neighbours.
So it’s hard to believe that it was less than eight months ago that Erik ten Hag was sitting in the stand at Selhurst Park wondering what the hell he had just signed up for?
Because the last time United travelled to Crystal Palace on the final day of last season, they stank the place out.
A miserable 1-0 defeat meant they finished the campaign a mammoth 35 points behind City and desperately clinging on to the last available Europa League spot.
But now they are genuine title once again and playing with the kind of swagger not seen since Sir Alex Ferguson was calling the shots.
There were only two survivors from last May’s Palace debacle in last night’s starting line-up and both played a key role again lst night.
Skipper Bruno Fernandes scored the all-important breakthrough goal just minutes after David de Gea’s fingertip save had clipped the Eagles’ wings.
Usually when United get their noses in front there is only going to be one outcome. In fact last night was the first time all season they had not gone on to win the game after taking the lead.
But the signs of nerves were there when Brazilian show pony Antony clashed with Fernandes after accusing his skipper of failing to make a run.
He had already taken exception to being flung to one side by Palace full-back Tyrick Mitchell and was clearly in the mood for a row.
Fortunately for United, they had the calming influence of Casemiro to cool his compatriot down before things got out of hand.
ReutersFernandes fired United ahead[/caption]
GettyOlise made it 1-1 with a fine free-kick[/caption]
Absolutely nothing seems to ruffle the veteran midfielder, who was even happy to pose for a selfie with a second-half pitch invader before the miscreant was eventually led away by the stewards.
He might have been only one booking away from ban but Casemiro has become so integral to ten Hag’s plans that there was no way he was going to be left out of this one.
But it was a gamble which backfired when he scythed down Wilfried Zaha in the 80th minute and could have absolutely no complaints when he received his fifth yellow card of the season.
And how he will be missed at Arsenal on Sunday.
He will never be the most eye-catching of United’s players but the way he protects his back four and tidies up in the middle of the park has been key to his team’s recent revival.
His mere presence in the engine room gives Fernandes and Christian Eriksen licence to push forward and both men were quick to take advantage of that freedom.
Twice in the opening ten minutes, Fernandes delivered perfect passes into the danger zone which Marcus Rashford and Antony were unable to take advantage of.
Then it was Eriksen’s turn to threaten with a rasping first-time effort which whistled just past the far post before Luke Shaw’s cross picked out Wout Wegorst for a header which looped just the wrong side of the bar.
The giant Dutchman might not be every United fan’s cup of tea after arriving on loan from Burnley last week but he gives their team a serious physical presence up front.
No-one relished a scrap with United more than Patrick Vieira during his time as a midfield enforcer but these days the Palace boss is confined to the sidelines and unable to offer much more than encouragement and tactical advice.
But there was little he could say to striker Jean-Philippe Mateta which was going to help end Palace’s recent goal drought.
The powerful target man controls the ball further than most players can kick it and so many Palace attacks floundered due to his inability to retain possession.
So it was left to Odsonne Edouard to briefly threaten United’s serene progress with a 40th minute shot on the turn which required a fingertip save from de Gea to push the ball against the bar.
But if Vieira thought that the tide was finally turning, his hopes were cruelly shattered four minutes later when Fernandes forced the breakthrough which United’s domination deserved.
Rashford’s pass picked out Eriksen’s forward run and when he pulled the ball back for Fernandes he had enough time and space to take a touch before lashing an unstoppable shot into the far corner.
It was only his fifth goal of the season yet no-one can question his growing influence on a team which is clearly going places again after far too long in the doldrums.
But Palace simply refused to accept their fate and Olise’s stoppage-time stunner means United remain eight points behind Arsenal having played a game more.
GettyErik ten Hag’s was not a happy figure after United dropped points late on[/caption]