Cristiano Ronaldo’s double helped Manchester United cut the gap to leaders Arsenal to three points as they moved second in the Premier League and extended Fulham’s miserable winless run away from home.
This was far from a fluent performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and their lack of penetration against a Fulham side who have leaked too many goals this season might be a cause for concern as they try and mount a title bid. The home side certainly had their better of the chances and perhaps should have been well clear before Ronaldo steadied any nerves creeping into the Stretford End ten minutes in.
The lively Anderson, seemingly playing in a more advanced role than his usually defensive-minded midfield position for United, made the first opportunity with a teasing cross that little Carlos Tevez struggled to reach. The diminutive Argentine couldn’t quite direct his header on target. But Tevez was buzzing around the Fulham penalty area with plenty of intent and forced Niemi into a smart stop moments later when he launched a powerful drive towards goal.
Even at this early stage, a goal seemed inevitable, although Sanchez will have been disappointed by the soft nature of its arrival. Steven Davis failed to clear a corner and Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic was allowed to head the ball back towards goal. Ronaldo’s sweet volley was out of the top drawer, but he was given far too much time and room to find target, especially as Fulham had fluffed an earlier chance to clear their lines.
It could have been worse for Fulham moments later when an instinctive block from Niemi denied Tevez a second. The former Southampton goalkeeper might not have known too much about how his body came to thwart Tevez’s finish from a Ryan Giggs cross but his positioning was faultless. Perhaps surprised by their ease of their Monday evening outing, United then seemed to take their foot off the pedal and allowed Fulham back into the contest.
Former Liverpool skipper Danny Murphy, always popular in these parts, went close twice in a minute. First a speculative shot after some lovely approach play drew a fine save from former Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who was a spectator shortly afterwards, when Murphy curled an effort just wide of the big Dutchman’s far post. Encouraged by those opportunities, Fulham continued to play with ambition and had Shefi Kuqi been a little more ruthless from a fine Simon Davies cross then Lawrie Sanchez’s side would have been level at the interval.
Ronaldo did manage to lift United out of their lethargy just before the hour mark. John O’Shea, who had replaced Patrice Evra at half time, swung over an inviting cross and the Portuguese star leapt above Dejan Stefanovic to head home the crucial second goal. The home side were much more carefree after that, though the expected avalanche of goals didn’t materialise. Wayne Rooney shot inches wide and ex-Fulham striker Louis Saha was denied by more excellent reactions from Niemi before Ronaldo was booked for diving, something a furious Ferguson described as ridiculous.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): van der Sar; Brown, Evra (O’Shea 45), R. Ferdinand (Carrick 75), Vidic; Hargreaves, Anderson, Ronaldo, Giggs; Tevez, Rooney (Saha 71). Subs (not used): Kuszczak, Fletcher.
BOOKED: Vidic, Ronaldo.
GOALS: Ronaldo (10, 58).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Konchesky, Hughes, Stefanovic; Davis, Murphy, Davies, Bouazza (Seol 71); Dempsey (Healy 64), Kuqi. Subs (not used): Warner, Bocanegra, Baird.
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire).