Romelu Lukaku pressed his claims for a more prominent role under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with his first goals in 10 appearances, scoring twice in Manchester United’s 3-1 victory at Crystal Palace on Wednesday that maintained their challenge for a top-four finish.
Lukaku scored either side of half-time to put United in control at Selhurst Park, with Ashley Young adding a late third after Palace’s Joel Ward had reduced the deficit to threaten a home fightback.
United’s lengthening injury list had given Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez the opportunity to show Solskjaer they were ready to shoulder more responsibility during the final months of the campaign.
The Old Trafford futures of both players has been questioned but in the absence of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, and with Marcus Rashford held back on the bench, the pair were tasked with providing the attacking threat Solskjaer hoped would ensure his side strengthened their bid for a place in next season’s Champions League.
The United interim manager had made clear the demands he makes on his players ahead of this game, even going so far as accepting responsibility for the spate of muscle injuries picked up by his squad, a consequence, he claimed, of his demands for a harder running style than that adopted by predecessor Jose Mourinho.
Addressing Lukaku in particular, Solskjaer admitted he would like to see the Belgium international lose some muscle mass.
That will take time, but the manager can be satisfied the player took a step in the right direction with his well-executed finish that gave his side a half-time lead.
– Lukaku pounces –
Not that Lukaku was initially convincing. It was always likely United would have to work hard to break down a Crystal Palace side who were buoyed by the weekend victory at Leicester City that triggered the dismissal of Claude Puel.
Palace, though, were without Mamadou Sakho, who now seems set to miss the rest of the season with a serious knee injury. And without the influential centre-back, the home side immediately appeared vulnerable when United forced an eighth-minute corner.
Luke Shaw swung in the cross towards Lukaku, who was allowed to move unhindered towards the edge of the six-yard box where he should have done much better than volley over the bar.
The home side responded quickly and should have forced the lead three minutes later when Andros Townsend was guilty of matching Lukaku’s misplaced place finish when he attempted to turn home James McArthur’s low cross.
It was an escape for the visitors and Lukaku made sure United made the most of their good fortune in the 33rd minute when he put his side ahead.
The opportunity came after a powerful run from Shaw, who pushed forward from left-back towards the edge of the Palace penalty area before squaring for Lukaku, who placed his finish inside the far post with his right foot.
Once again the home side reacted positively and should have levelled inside a minute when Townsend’s cross found its way towards Jeffrey Schlupp, free in front of David de Gea’s goal, only for the midfielder to completely miscue his header.
The ease with which Palace had gained a clear sight of goal highlighted the need to add to their lead and Lukaku duly obliged immediately after the restart when he hooked the ball past Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita after the home side had failed to clear Ashley Young’s corner.
The value of that goal was underlined in the 66th minute when Joel Ward halved the visitors’ lead with a diving header from Schlupp’s cross. Hopes of a home fightback were extinguished, though, when Young finished from a tight angle seven minutes from the end.