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Cristiano Ronaldo produced a moment of magic out of keeping with a flat Manchester United performance as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side took a firm grip on the Premiership title race with a scarcely deserved victory at Fulham this afternoon.

United, who appeared sluggish after their Champions’ League exploits in midweek, and were behind to a well-taken opener from Brian McBride before being outplayed by their hosts for long periods of an engaging contest. They seemed set to take a point from the banks of the River Thames courtesy of Ryan Giggs’ equaliser only for Ronaldo to rifle high past Jan Lustavaka after a brilliant run from inside his own half to break Fulham hearts.

The intensity of the celebrations, from Ronaldo on the field, Ferguson out of the dugout and the massed ranks of United fans at the Putney End, told you everything you needed to know about the value of the Portuguese winger’s winner. Both men admitted the visitors had been fortunate afternoons after being bullied by Michael Brown in midfield and McBride in the air. Chris Coleman lamented Fulham’s failure to build on the American’s opening goal, but Fulham’s ferocity was all consuming.

They began at quite a pace with Simon Davies shooting wide before Papa Bouba Diop extended former Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and McBride sent a header into the side netting. There was a nervousness about the United defence that McBride ruthlessly exploited to give the hosts the lead. The American pounced on a horrendous mix-up between van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic to roll in an improvised finish off the far post despite the desperate attempts of Rio Ferdinand to clear the danger.

Liam Rosenior once again kept Ronaldo quiet for most of the afternoon – until his mesmerising moment at the death – but Ryan Giggs was rampant on the other flank. The Welsh winger had already showed signs of his threat down the left before his mishit volley whistled into the corner of the net from Wayne Rooney’s cross after Henrik Larsson had punished a dreadful error from Moritz Volz. Fulham got through to the interval after Patrice Evra and Ronaldo missed good chances to give United a half time lead, but the Whites were in the ascendancy for much of the second half.

Tomasz Radzinski almost restored the home side’s advantage straight after the restart when he rattled the bar with a thumping header from Brown’s cross and Fulham were then denied by three splendid saves from their former goalkeeper, van der Sar. The Dutchman denied Davies from close range and then somehow smothered a header from McBride.

The introduction of ex-Fulham forward Louis Saha finally enlivened United, but they still seemed likely to only muster a share of the spoils before Ronaldo raced away from Clint Dempsey down the left flank. Coleman’s bleak mood was hardly improved when referee Peter Walton refused to award a spot-kick after Heidar Helguson had been bundled over by van der Sar in the final minute. That was a day when Fulham could justifiably feel hard done by.

FULHAM (4-5-1): Lastuva; Volz, Rosenior, Christanval, Bocanegra; Brown, Diop (Dempsey 71), Smertin, Radzinski (John 72), Davies; McBride (Helguson 79). Subs (not used): Warner, Routledge.

BOOKED: Brown, Radzinski, Diop.

GOAL: McBride (17).

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): van der Sar, Brown, Evra (Silvestre 67), Ferdinand, Vidic (O’Shea 59); Scholes, Carrick (Saha 66), Ronaldo, Giggs; Rooney, Larsson. Subs (not used): Kuszczak, Park Ji-Sung.

BOOKED: Ferdinand, Scholes.

GOALS: Giggs (29), Ronaldo (88).

REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).

ATTENDANCE: 24,459.