Paddy McNair was set to replace the 27-year-old, who had struggled to make an impact on an aggressive affair, worsened still by a knock to the ankle.
However, with 83 minutes on the clock, Mata struck the perfect free-kick to give his side an absolutely vital win – one that puts them level on points with so-called ‘title-contenders’ Manchester City. Speaking after the game, van Gaal explained that he was planning to take Mata off to avoid exacerbating his injury.
“It was because he was limping at that time,” said the boss.
There are, it seems, some moments in football that are determined by fate. Imagine an alternate state of affairs, where Mata was taken off immediately after picking up his knock, and Man United consequently went on to record another miserable 0-0 home draw. The season, which suddenly looked so promising after Sunday, would be once again dead in the water.
As it is, van Gaal’s enigmatic side are still very much alive, with Champions League spots suddenly looking like a glaring possibility.