Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace eventually killed off an enterprising Fulham as Manchester United won a thrilling clash at Old Trafford with Chris Coleman sent to the stands after raging about another ridiculous refereeing decision.
United’s Portuguese protege powered home an outstanding first-half free kick and then finished off Fulham’s laudable fightback by firing home from close range in the closing stages. But Coleman was enraged by the match officials’ decision to allow Manchester United’s third goal – scored by former Fulham forward Louis Saha – to stand after Ruud van Nistelrooy had been more than a yard offside in the build-up. The Fulham boss sprinted to watch a replay on a pitchside monitor, sensing as a former defender that Fulham’s high line had caught van Nistelrooy offside, and then offered the assistant referee a frank assessment of the decision, which saw him sent off by Martin Atkinson.
United’s victory was entertaining but no means certain as Fulham came to Old Trafford to play and it turned what had looked like a straightforward victory for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side into an absorbing encounter. The hosts almost made the perfect start when Antti Niemi saved from van Nistelrooy after the Dutch striker was played in by Park Ji-Sung and the Fulham goalkeeper produced an excellent reaction save to keep out Wes Brown’s volley.
But United’s pressure was unrelenting and they went in front when Niemi was left helpless as Park’s tame chip took a vicious deflection off Carlos Bocanegra and nestled in the corner. Park, who had been in sensational form when United narrowly won the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage, had finally scored his first Premiership goal. The hosts went two up when Ronaldo lashed home a magnificent free-kick from fully third yards out.
If the Old Trafford crowd felt that their side had assured victory without the first thirteen minutes, they reckoned without the fighting spirit that Coleman has hardwired into his Fulham side. Brian McBride immediately pulled a goal back with a brilliant header as he outjumped Gary Neville’s to meet Liam Rosenior’s enticing delivery, before Coleman erupted in fury when the cleverly offside van Nistelrooy forced Niemi into a save that saw Saha sweep home the rebound.
As if fired by their manager’s anger, Fulham continued to push forward and got their reward eight minutes before the interval. Wayne Brown hung up an inviting cross from the left and Heidar Helguson soared above Patrice Evra to head the Whites right back into the contest, although former Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will think he should have done better than allow the ball to slip through his hands.
Fulham, forced into a change at half-time with debutant Michael Brown injured, carried the attack to United after the break and almost equalised when Steed Malbranque’s shot looped up off Mikael Silvestre and forced van der Sar into a sprawling save. The visitors continued throwing bodies forward and paid for their ambition in the final five minutes when Niemi produced more heroics to deny van Nistelrooy but Ronaldo drove the rebound into the corner.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): van der Sar; G. Neville (Vidic 69), Brown, Silvestre, Evra (Bardsley 81); Ronaldo, Smith, Park Ji-Sung (Rooney 69), Richardson; Saha, van Nistelrooy. Subs (not used): Steele, Fletcher.
BOOKED: Smith, Brown, Neville, Evra.
GOALS: Park Ji-Sung (6), Ronaldo (14, 86), Saha (23).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Rosenior, Bridge, Knight, Bocanegra; Elliott, Brown (Radzinski 46), Malbranque, Boa Morte; Helguson (John 76), McBride. Subs (not used): Warner, Goma, N. Jensen.
BOOKED: Rosenior, Boa Morte.
GOALS: McBride (22), Helguson (37).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).