Nemanja Matic scored the first goal of his Manchester United career on Monday night and couldn’t have picked a better moment to do it. They trailed Crystal Palace by two goals with 50 minutes on the clock but after Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku drew United level, Matic stole all three points with his injury-time wonder strike.
In the summer, Matic traded life at Stamford Bridge to be reunited with his former manager, Jose Mourinho, at Manchester United. Mourinho likes to surround himself with players who are loyal to him and the midfielder has proven himself to be that, with the manager referring to him as a “Jose Mourinho player,” when he was unveiled at the club.
Chelsea fans claimed they were glad to see the back of him, insisting he had been poor in his final season at the club.
Manager Antonio Conte felt differently though, starting Matic in every game, other than when he was injured for a match against Manchester City, until the Premier League title was won. When Matic left, Conte made it clear that this had not been a decision he approved of and has repeatedly sung the player’s praises since.
The opening few weeks of this season saw social media awash with United supporters thanking Chelsea for their midfielder. Matic put in man of the match performances every week and looked to be one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
In contrast, Chelsea were stuck with Tiemoue Bakayoko, spending all of the £40 million they made from Matic on an inferior player. His last appearance was in Chelsea’s 4-1 defeat against Watford when he was sent off. It’s safe to say that his debut season with the current champions has been fairly disastrous.
However, while United fans initially were in a great position to scoff at Chelsea’s poor work in the transfer market, Matic went through a period of poor form where his worst attributes were exposed too often. The Serbia international is slow and if he gets caught out of position, United are in trouble. For a stretch, he looked like a completely different player to the opening months, with him ambling through games rather than controlling them.
When you consider that Matic has played 90 minutes of every Premier League game though, he may be forgiven for looking off the pace at times. He must be exhausted. But the long-term injury to Marouane Fellaini has left Mourinho with few options for rotation, although fans were still eager for him to try someone else.
Yet, despite going off the boil, Matic has seemingly found his feet again. Last weekend, he was exceptional in United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea. No one had more touches of the ball or completed more passes than Matic on either team. Maybe he was inspired by facing his former club, but he looked fantastic and that seems to have prompted a resurgence in him.
On Monday evening, United looked like they were about to lose their first Premier League game against Palace after they went 2-0 down. Yet United managed to adopt the mentality they showed so often under Sir Alex Ferguson and fought their way back in to the game.
Having brought the scoreline back to 2-2, the ball fell to Matic 25 yards out in the 92nd minute. As he looked to position himself to strike the ball, United fans all over the world screamed at their television for him not to shoot. While everyone may be familiar with his incredible strike against Tottenham when still at Chelsea, he hasn’t done much in the way of replicating that at United.
This was likely to be United’s last chance of the game and with the forwards surrounding the penalty area, there had to be a better option than shooting. It was as if you could already hear the groans from the away end, predicting he would slice it out for a throw-in or blast it well over the bar.
Yet Matic caught the ball perfectly and his shot crept just inside the post, resulting in euphoria. Lukaku fell to his knees in celebration before the United players jumped into the ecstatic away end.
It felt as though it had been forever that they had experienced the adrenalin from coming behind to win like that. The players’ heads didn’t drop, despite it looking as though it wasn’t going to be their day, and Matic deserved all the plaudits for sealing the win.
With important games on the horizon, namely Liverpool at the weekend and the second leg of the Champions League fixture against Sevilla next week, United will need Matic to continue his recent rise to form if they are going to pick up wins in these tough matches.