Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew blamed the distraction of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final with Watford at Wembley for his side’s defeat to Champions League-chasing Manchester United last night.
An early own goal from Palace defender Damien Delaney was added to in the second half by Italy full-back Matteo Darmian as the two sides warmed up for their last-four tussles with contrasting results.
Victory moved fifth-placed United to within a point of Arsenal in fourth, heaping the pressure on the stumbling Gunners who have a chance to respond and bolster their grip on a top-four place when they host West Brom tonight.
Palace, who made seven changes from their starting XI at Arsenal on Sunday, remain nine points clear of the relegation zone, although all teams below them retain games in hand – 18th-placed Sunderland have two.
“It’s not the start anyone wants at Old Trafford. To concede after four minutes knocked us a little bit but our focus is slightly blurred as we have the semi-final on Sunday,” said Pardew.
“I’ve been a player and you’re kind of protecting yourself a little bit because you know it’s a huge game for you personally. I couldn’t fault my players’ effort but it was just that little bit of focus, where you hurt teams, wasn’t quite there. That’s probably due to Sunday.
“It’s a big game for Manchester United [against Everton on Saturday] but it’s much bigger for us. It’s an opportunity to win a trophy.”
United manager Louis van Gaal, meanwhile, challenged Arsenal and Manchester City, who they trail by two points, to cope with the presence of his improving side in the intensifying race for a top-four finish.
“We have put pressure on all season but now, at the end, it shall count much more,” he said. “I’m very happy because we have to win. We still have four matches to go and we have to win them all and then we have a chance.”
United have never lost to Palace in a Premier League fixture and entered the clash on the back of eight straight victories against the Eagles at Old Trafford, while it took just four minutes to hint at a ninth.
Palace, so resolute in defence at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, were the architects of their own downfall as Delaney turned a cross from full-back Darmian beyond his own goalkeeper, stand-in stopper Julian Speroni.
United doubled their lead 10 minutes into the second half as Darmian controlled the ball with his chest before cracking home his maiden goal for the club, in off the post, from the edge of the penalty area.