Papa Bouba Diop’s astonishing late equaliser delivered another bodyblow to Manchester United’s faltering title challenge as Fulham fought back to claim a point at Craven Cottage tonight.

United looked to be heading for a much-needed victory when Alan Smith seized on some sloppy Fulham defending and fire home from a tight angle as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side completely dominated the first half. The hosts were much improved after the break but looked destined to have nothing to show for their endeavour as Andy Cole struck a post against his old side before Diop lashed home an outrageous long-range strike with three minutes to play.

United began the game on the front foot and regularly opened up the Fulham defence with precise passing moves. They initially struggled to test Edwin van der Sar and were limited to shots from distance, although Gary Neville’s ambitious effort from 20 yards only troubled those in the upper reaches of the Hammersmith End. It took Roy Keane to find more accuracy from long-range with the United captain rattling the far post from twenty yards after Ian Pearce had got in the way of Ryan Giggs’ effort.

The away side hit the other post two minutes later when Smith released the rampaging Wayne Rooney, but the England teenager saw his measured shot come back off the woodwork after beating van der Sar. Ferguson’s men did go in front a minute later, although Sylvain Legwinski should have cleared Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross. Instead, he lost the battle for the loose ball with Smith, who spun away from the otherwise impressive Liam Rosenior and guided home even though the angle appeared against him.

Keane almost doubled United’s lead eight minutes before the break when he broke from midfield, collected a forward ball from Smith and fired goalwards only to be denied by van der Sar’s reflex reactions. Ronaldo drove agonisingly wide after a trademark raid down the right moments before the break. Fulham, who made Cole their captain on his 350th league appearance, kept plugging away but the former United forward wasted their best chance firing wide after turning away from Rio Ferdinand.

Coleman’s charges made a much better game of it in the second half. Roy Carroll had to stretch to turn away a Diop header and, after Cole turned Ferdinand inside out again, he was unfortunate to see his angled finish bounce back off the frame of the goal. Alan Smith spurned two good chances at the other end before league debutant Rosenior raced down the right and picked out Steed Malbranque, although the Frenchman’s side faded disappointingly wide.

Fulham kept throwing bodies, which raised the chances of a United breakaway goal killing the game, but they got their reward in the 87th minute. There seemed little danger when Pembridge rolled the ball across to Diop in a central position 30 yards from goal but the Senegalese midfielder had other ideas. He took advantage of Scholes standing off him to fire a fabulous finish past Carroll off the inside of the near post and set off towards the old Cottage as Fulham’s historic home erupted.

FULHAM (4-4-2): van der Sar; Rosenior, Bocanegra, Pearce, Rehman; Diop, Legwinski (Radzinski 74), Pembridge, Malbranque; McBride, Cole. Subs (not used): Flitney, Knight, Hammond.

BOOKED: Diop, Radzinski.

GOAL: Diop (87).

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Carroll; G. Neville, Heinze, Silvestre, Ferdinand; Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo, Giggs; Rooney, Smith. Subs (not used): Howard, O’Shea, Fortune, Fletcher, Bellion.

BOOKED: Silvestre.

GOAL: Smith (33).

REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).