Manchester United moved one point behind fourth-placed Arsenal with four Premier League games remaining after a comfortable win over Crystal Palace.
Damien Delaney set United on their way when he inadvertently turned Matteo Darmian’s cross into his own net.
Julian Speroni kept Palace in the game with a series of fine saves before Darmian doubled the lead by lashing home from 20 yards.
Arsenal, who have a game in hand, entertain West Brom on Thursday.
Darmian’s first goal for United sealed a highly satisfactory win for Louis van Gaal’s side on a night thousands of United fans decided to stay away.
Stay away fans make their point
The attendance, which may have included season-ticket holders not present, was given as 75,277, but there looked to be far fewer inside the ground. Despite United’s victory, the atmosphere was flat.
With their title challenge over and some fans disillusioned with manager Van Gaal, thousands of supporters chose to give this match a miss.
Asked afterwards about the empty seats, Van Gaal said he didn’t see “a lot” before adding “you have seen it because you want to see it.”
Can United secure a Champions League spot?
This was a game United simply had to win and they easily managed to get the job done thanks, partly, to an inferior Palace side who have yet to secure top-flight safety.
United were everything Palace were not – bright, creative, energetic and hungry.
One win will not paper over the cracks of a disappointing league campaign, yet Van Gaal’s side have given themselves a fighting chance of sealing a top-four finish and Champions League football.
United still face big tests against leaders Leicester City (home) and West Ham (away), while they must also travel to a Norwich side fighting to stay in the Premier League before ending the league season at home to Bournemouth.
Youth, pace and promise
But for keeper Julian Speroni, Palace would have been on the receiving end of an ugly defeat as Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard once again showed United have a promising future.
Martial, who gave Martin Kelly and Adrian Mariappa a torrid evening, was denied by two excellent saves after Delaney had stabbed United into the lead while trying to make a clearance.
United’s previous four league wins had been 1-0 but the hosts always looked likely to add to their lead against limp opponents.
Darmian neatly chested the ball down before dispatching a sweet finish in front of the Stretford End and only more heroics from Speroni kept out the lively pair of Rashford and Lingard.
Problems mount for Pardew
Palace started 2016 fifth in the table yet three matches from the end of their league campaign they are nine points above the relegation zone and all the teams below them have games in hand.
Manager Alan Pardew made seven changes from the side that earned a creditable 1-1 draw at Arsenal in their previous game, but they face Watford in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against the backdrop of one win in 18 league games.
Argentine Speroni kept his side in the game while Wilfried Zaha at least offered glimpses of an attacking threat.
Others did little to enhance their chances of earning a starting place at the weekend as United dominated from start to finish.
Emmanuel Adebayor never looked like scoring, defender Pape Souare was fortunate to escape a red card for a wild lunge on Juan Mata and Mariappa struggled on his first start for six months.
Man of the Match – Julian Speroni (Crystal Palace)
What they said
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal: “I have told my players that it was a good game and the only remark is that we didn’t score too much goals because it was a match of a 5-0.
“We needed three points and that is what I said to my players. Darmian was surprising me on Monday in the training session. We did a sort of finishing session and he was the top scorer in that time.”
Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew: “I am disappointed to concede a goal like we did in the first six minutes. It was avoidable and took a bit of ambition out of us.
“It was difficult after the Arsenal performance to get the same energy here tonight. We tried to freshen it up.
“I could see a bit of blurred focus from our players. I can understand that. A lot of our players may never get a better chance to get to an FA Cup final.”
The stats you need to know
- Manchester United have never lost to Crystal Palace in the Premier League (W11 D3).
- United have benefitted from more own goals in Premier League history than any other side (66).
- Crystal Palace have failed to score in 11 of their 14 Premier League games against Manchester United and six of seven at Old Trafford.
- United have won their last nine home league matches against Crystal Palace.
- Palace are winless in their last nine Premier League away matches (D5 L4) since their last win on the road back on 19 December at Stoke City.
Wembley beckons for both United and Palace.
United will be confident of seeing off a deflated Everton in the first semi-final on Saturday (17:15 BST) while Palace have an extra day to prepare before facing Watford (16:00 BST) for a place in the 21 May final.