Fulham battled to hold the defending champions to a draw – surviving the inevitable Louis Saha goal on his return with Manchester United, vociferous penalty appeals and the obvious quality at Sir Alex Ferguson’s disposal – to emerge with a share of the spoils after a fascinating contest at Loftus Road.

Saha, booed throughout the crowd that used to worship him, finished powerfully into the net after Cristiano Ronaldo had unlocked the Fulham defence to give Manchester United the lead on 14 minutes. But the visitors failed to build on their bright start and Fulham, growing in confidence with each passing minute, equalised in the second half when Luis Boa Morte wriggled down the left and surprised Roy Carroll with a low shot into the corner of the net.

United were infuriated by Alan Willey’s decision not to award a penalty after Saha appeared to have been caught in the box by van der Sar with substitute Ruud van Nistelrooy shown a yellow card for rushing onto the field of play to remonstrate with the referee. The draw leaves Ferguson’s side nine points behind Arsenal, who beat Charlton at Highbury.

The Red Devils had started brightly with Saha, included against his former club at the expense of van Nistelrooy, almost scoring within ten seconds of the kick off. Ryan Giggs roamed across the midfield menacingly and, in truth, it was a surprise that United took as long as fourteen minutes to break the deadlock. Ronaldo received possession from Carroll and played a lovely through ball between Fulham’s centre backs. Saha held off his man and accelerated into the penalty area before effortlessly finding the far corner.

At that point, it felt like Fulham could easily be overwhelmed. With Sylvain Legwinski and Sean Davis to the fore, the home side began to nullify United’s advantage in central midfield and the Fulham pair combined to almost produce an equaliser before the break with Legwinski’s ambitious drive from distance shaving the top of the United crossbar.

United came on strong at the second of the second half with Ronaldo to the fore. The Portuguese winger terrorised Moritz Volz down the right flank and was unfortunate not to cap a trademark run with a second goal as his shot flashed fractionally wide. Adam Green whipped a free-kick just over the United bar and, after Forlan somehow headed straight at van der Sar with the whole goal to aim at from Ronaldo’s centre, the Whites altered the mood with an equaliser.

Boa Morte produced a burst of pace that left Wes Brown trailing in his wake and took an early shot from an acute angle that caught Roy Carroll unaware. The Portugese winger’s effort snuck between the United goalkeeper and the near post to bring Fulham level. United’s heckles were raised when Wiley waved away their prolonged appeals after van der Sar upended Saha in the box, but they struggled to carve out clear chances even after van Nistelrooy and Giggs were introduced with twenty minutes to play.

FULHAM (4-3-3): van der Sar; Volz, Green, Goma, Pearce; Davis, Legwinski, Malbranque (Inamoto 80); Petta (Pembridge 66), Boa Morte, McBride. Subs (not used): Crossley, Knight, Rehman.

BOOKED: Davis.

GOAL: Boa Morte (64).

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Carroll; Brown, P. Neville, O’Shea, Fortune; Keane, Scholes, Fletcher (Giggs 72), Ronaldo; Saha, Forlan (van Nistelrooy 72). Subs (not used): Howard, Djemba-Djemba, Bellion.

BOOKED: Brown, Forlan, van Nistelrooy.

GOAL: Saha (14).

REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).