It was Antonio Valencia’s pinpoint ball over the top that bounced over Norwich defender Sebastien Bassong and trickled into Wayne Rooney’s path, and the streetwise United captain kept his cool inside the box in the 72 nd minute.
Rooney held the ball up, and instead of trying to shoot on goal, turned and provided a perfect layoff for Spanish midfielder Mata, who side-footed the ball strongly past Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy.
It was sheer relief for Louis van Gaal, as the three points puts the Red Devils right on the heels of “noisy neighbours” Manchester City, who are just a point ahead in fourth position on the Barclays Premier League standings.
Now United will be hoping for a huge favour from third-placed Arsenal, who travel to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday to take on Manchester City in a blockbuster fixture.
Even a draw for City will put United right back into contention for fourth with two games left in the season, as Van Gaal’s side face West Ham away on Tuesday and Bournemouth at home on the final day of the campaign next Sunday.
City have to get past Arsenal at home on Sunday and end off with a tough away game to Swansea City in Wales.
But on Saturday at Carrow Road, United were so lethargic that it looked as if it was relegation-threatened Norwich who were chasing a Champions League spot for next season.
Van Gaal’s unit lacked urgency, drive and creativity as they laboured along for the best part of an hour and hardly troubled the Canaries’ defence.
They were disrupted by injury before and just after the start of the game as firstly French striker Anthony Martial withdrew after the pre-match warm-up with a tight hamstring, and 14 minutes in, left back Matteo Darmian hurt his left ankle in a duel with Ivo Pinto and was taken off the pitch on a stretcher after receiving treatment, and was replaced by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
Martial’s absence meant that United didn’t have the out-and-out pace upfront to get in behind the Norwich defence, with Rooney moving out of the traditional No 10 role to be the target-man, with Van Gaal strangely opting to rest young sensation Marcus Rashford due to a heavy workload, despite having just three games left in the season.
The Dutch manager also employed questionable tactics, with the speedy Jesse Lingard fulfilling Rooney’s usual playmaker role instead of the experienced Mata, who was used a bit further back in midfield.
When Mata did get his foot on the ball, he produced a number of threatening crosses and chips into the box, but the likes of Chris Smalling, Rooney and Memphis Dupuy were unable to finish.
Smalling get the best chance of the first half in the 29th minute when he went high from a Mata corner, but his header went just over the crossbar.
It was actually Norwich who started with greater purpose, with Robbie Brady’s early break-out putting Nathan Redmond into space inside the box, but the United defence cleared for a corner.
Then striker Cameron Jerome had a free header, but it went straight at United goalkeeper David de Gea, who knocked the ball away with his thigh.
The second half didn’t reach any great heights on a warm Saturday afternoon in East Anglia until Mata’s timely intervention for United.
Norwich, though, remain second-from-bottom on 31 points, and will be hard-pressed to stay up with two games left against Watford (home) and Everton (away).
@IndyCapeSport – Independent Media
Original source: Mata spares United’s blushes