Just back from the Cottage – and one of the finest Fulham performances I’ve seen in 17 years of watching the mighty Whites. Once again, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I wasn’t feeling terribly confident about taking on Manchester United. In my mind, last weekend’s defeat by Liverpool was the worst thing that could have happened for us – as Ferguson would have had them right up for the battle from the first whistle.
Yes, United were horribly out of sorts. But, as much as the media might try and talk about how the champions had an off day, today was all about Fulham. They didn’t show United too much respect, hassled and harried when they didn’t have the ball and used possession intelligently. Our start mirrored the impressive manner in which we began the Cup tie only a couple of weeks ago and this time we got the crucial opening goal.
Clint Dempsey had already flashed a couple of shots wide of Edwin van der Sar as we sought to assert ourselves although Paul Scholes took matters into his own hands (literally). Van der Sar did brilliantly to deny Bobby Zamora from a corner but Scholes palmed Zamora’s follow-up header away from goal. It looked as if he might get away with it, too, as Phil Dowd didn’t immediately blow for the penalty. The assistant on the Riverside Stand side of the ground was flagging furiously and soon Dowd was reaching for his pocket. I was particularly worried about Scholes ripping us to shreds with his famed passing ability so to see him disappear so early was a real tonic.
Danny Murphy still had to put away the penalty amidst all the excitement, which he did with aplomb. His goalscoring record against United must be quite special now. It was a good penalty and you felt the belief coarsing through the Hammersmith End. This wasn’t going to be another roll over and die afternoon.
Buoyed by the goal, the usually conservative Fulham were happy to take the game to United. In truth, they should have led by more than the single goal at the break. Zamora saw a shot well saved by van der Sar from distance and Andy Johnson should have done better than allowing the ball to squirm tamely away from his feet when he was in a promising position. Even the ever-reliable Clint Dempsey managed to lift the rebound disappointingly over the bar.
Half time seemed to come at just the wrong time for the Whites. I was amazed that Rooney didn’t start the game – and his introduction for the legarthic Berbatov, the target of a particularly witty ditty from the Hammersmith End songsmiths (‘Oh Dimitar, Oh Dimitar/Your Dad washes windscreens/On the North Circular’), gave United much more of a threat up front.
We started to sit alarmingly deep almost inviting United, who remember still had only ten man, to try and break us down. There were periods in the second half when they really should have done. Darren Fletcher’s shot, after a clever exchange of passes with Ronaldo, was easily gathered by the Schwarzer and the Australian was counting his lucky stars when Ronaldo could only head a cross from Rooney into the middle of the goal and into Schwarzer’s arms. That really should have been the equaliser.
For a while, under an intense spell of United pressure, Fulham looked as though they might buckle. But we had Schwarzer, who surely must be considered one of the signings of the season, to thank for perserving our advantage. He did brilliantly to deny Park when the Korean was cleverly played in by Ronaldo and then instinctively thrust his feet forward to thwart Rooney from the rebound.
Credit to Hodgson too. His calm, understated manner in the build-up to this game concealed a different approach this time around. We were much more adventurous with the ball and tried to deny United time on the ball. And, even though we’ve considered him a bit too passive on ocassions this season, he got his substitutions absolutely right this time around. Dacourt gave us energy in midfield in place of the limping Murphy, Kamara was a willing runner when he replaced the tiring Zamora – who had an another excellent game up front – and Zoltan Gera, although he wasn’t the most popular substitute in the world when he came on for Dempsey, wrapped up the points with a sublime finish.
Andy Johnson scampered down the right angle of the box and pulled the ball across for Gera, who had his back to goal, but somehow managed to flick the ball up into the air and volley it with a majestic overhead kick past van der Sar and into the far corner. Rather like Zamora, Gera’s enthusiastic celebration, with many a backflip, released a pent-up frustration and most of the brickbats that had flown his way prior to that were forgotten.
There was still time for Rooney to petulantly get himself dismissed. He angrily threw the ball away as United were denied the opportunity to take a quick free-kick and was given his marching orders by Dowd. The referee got a fair bit of abuse for his trouble and Rooney showed his frustration by punching the corner flag as he left the pitch.
It was rather symptomatic of the way in which United unravelled during the afternoon. Ronaldo, usually such a threat, was well marshalled by Konchesky and Pantsil throughout and went through his full repertoire of dives and rolls. even showing Dowd his leg in the second half – and, to his great credit, the referee responded in kind. I thought the Portuguese winger was rather fortunate to still be on the pitch after a horrible challenge midway through the second half, but I’ve yet to see a replay of the tackle.
The last word should go to one of our most consistent performers this season. Brede Hangeland had another outstanding game at the heart of our defence and kept Berbatov extremely quiet in the first half. He had his hand full against a lively Rooney but never gave up. In truth, it was too difficult to pick a man of the match – nobody had a poor game.
It’s been 45 years since we last beat Manchester United at home so this is a result to savour. It might – just might – also hint at even more special days to come with Hodgson at the helm.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Dacourt 67), Davies, Dempsey (Gera 81); Zamora (Kamara 77), A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Kallio, Nevland.
BOOKED: Pantsil, Dempsey.
GOALS: Murphy (pen 18), Gera (87).
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-5-1): van der Sar; O’Shea (Tevez 70), Evra, Evans, Ferdinand; Fletcher, Giggs, Scholes, Park, Ronaldo; Berbatov (Rooney 45). Subs (not used): Foster, Neville, F Da Silva, Carrick, Anderson.
BOOKED: Evans, Evra, Ronaldo, Rooney.
SENT OFF: Scholes (18), Rooney (89).
REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).