Ruud van Nistelrooy scored a hat-trick as Manchester United moved top of the Premiership for the first time in twelve months after a comfortable victory over Fulham at Old Trafford.
The Dutch striker scored a contender for goal of the season – dribbling through the Fulham defence from the halfway line to make it 2-0 midway through the second half – but the visitors were furious that referee Steve Bennett failed to spot van Nistelrooy’s forearm smash on Sylvain Legwinski at the side of his run. It was questionable whether the Whites would have fought back in any case as van Nistelrooy had already punctured their brave resistance with a spot-kick on the stroke of half time. The former PSV forwarded rounded off the scoring in added time as his volley flew in off the hapless Jon Harley to end Arsenal’s eighteen-week occupation of top spot.
Fulham braved early pressure from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, with Abdes Ouaddoh fortunate to get away with a second minute trip on Ryan Giggs, which referee Bennett interpreted as accidental. Maik Taylor did well to field a van Nistelrooy snapshot after the in-form striker had spun away from Zat Knight. The young centre back, in the side after Alain Goma pulled up injured just before the warm-up, was bemused by van Nistelrooy’s magnificent and Taylor soon had to deny the striker and Paul Scholes in quick succession.
Andy Melville prodded a Giggs toe-poke off the line as Fulham somehow came through the first ten minutes unscathed and began to play some sparkling football of their own. Steed Malbranque was a handful for the home defence all afternoon and the fleet-footed Frenchman teed off his compatriot Martin Djetou for a shot from just outside the area that beat Fabian Barthez and left the crossbar shaking.
The Londoners were a threat on the break and Louis Saha almost opened the scoring after fashioning a chance all for himself with some wonderful close control, but his shot whistled agonisingly wide. United stepped it up just before half time and after Taylor had done well to prevent Knight from putting through his own net, Djetou was penalised for pulling back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the area. van Nistelrooy powered the perfect penalty into the bottom corner to give Ferguson’s men the lead at half time.
United were always in control after that and van Nistelrooy took centre stage, scoring a superb individual goal, after appearing to catch Legwinski’s face with his elbow in the centre circle. Allowed to continue as the Fulham midfielder fell to the ground, van Nistelrooy dribbled past four Fulham defenders and tucked a measured finish past the advancing Taylor to give the Red Devils some breathing space. The home side squandered several chances to add to their advantage before van Nistelrooy completed his hat-trick by firing in – off Harley – from Giggs’ cross in stoppage time.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Barthez; G. Neville, O’Shea, Brown, Ferdinand; Butt, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs; van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer. Subs (not used): Ricardo, Blanc, Fortune, Fletcher.
BOOKED: G. Neville, Ferdinand.
GOALS: van Nistelrooy (pen 44, 68, 90).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Taylor; Ouaddoh, Harley, Melville, Knight; Djetou, Legwinski, Malbranque, Boa Morte; Saha, Marlet. Subs (not used): Herrera, Wome, Clark, Inamoto, Sava.
REFEREE: Steve Bennett (Kent).