The most satisfying thing about this victory from a Fulham perspective was that, unlike last season, it won’t send shockwaves through the footballing world. The Cottagers, improving remarkably under Roy Hodgson, clearly believed that they could cause Manchester United’s makeshift defence problems and so it proved. The contest seemed to have been settled well before Damien Duff stroked in a glorious third to give the scoreline a more convincing gloss.
Both sides had come off victories in midweeek and were looking to add another assured performance at Craven Cottage this afternoon. You sense that Fulham gained the greater belief from exploits, especially as European progression had been achieved at Basel’s expense with Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey and Duff all on the bench. The confidence was clearly coursing through the veins of Bobby Zamora, buoyed by his Swiss braced, judging by the way he held off Richie De Laet to fashion an early chance for Zoltan Gera. Tomasz Kuszczak, keen to prove a point in the continuing absence of ex-Fulham keeper Edwin van der Sar, did well to push the Hungarian’s fierce drive aside.
Fulham sat off the champions a tad too much in the early stages, perhaps wary of conceding an early goal. Yet this wasn’t a win built on the fabled defensive solidity that Hodgson has brought to the banks of the Thames. Fulham were good value for the lead earned by Danny Murphy’s curling shot, even if Kuszczak might have felt he should have more to prevent the ball from boucing into the corner. Paul Scholes was culpable too, having been robbed by the Fulham captain, who was making his first league start in three months. Zamora might have increased the lead but flicked an instinctive header wide from close range.
United saw plenty of the ball, but were fitful going forward. That might have had something to do with Sir Alex Ferguson’s surprising decision to play Wayne Rooney alongside Michael Owen, reprising a partnership that had promised much but delivered little at international level. Rooney was bright, frequently dropping deep to pick up possession, but cut a frustrated figure as he shots flew harmlessly over. Owen was desperate to impress but it was difficult to escape the impression that the game was being played a couple of paces ahead of him. The contrast between Owen and the powerful Zamora would have been instructive for Fabio Capello.
Much has been made of Zamora’s lack of predatory instincts inside the penalty area. Three goals in as many games has helped to quell talk of an England call-up and he did more to dismiss any doubts about his potency just after the break. Duff burst past Patrice Evra and sent over a deep cross that Dempsey headed back into the danger area. United panicked – and with good reason – as Zamora arrived to clinically thump a shot past Kuszczak.
United still poured forward, befitting a side that was brimming with creative players, but Mark Schwarzer was largely a spectator. His only anxious moment came when Rooney drove a shot fractions wide and even the introduction of Dimitar Berbatov and Danny Welbeck failed to spark United into life. Instead, it was Fulham who found a third. Zamora showed his strength again to shield the ball and find Duff, drifting in from the right, with a delightful flick. Duff struck a sumptuous shot into the bottom left corner from the edge of the box. It was sublime stuff.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy (Dikgacoi 80), Dempsey, Duff (Greening 76); Gera; Zamora (Nevland 90). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Etuhu, Riise.
GOALS: Murphy (22), Zamora (46), Duff (75).
MANCHESTER UNITED (3-5-2): Kuszczak; Evra, De Laet (Fabio 58), Carrick; Anderson, Fletcher, Scholes, Valencia, Gibson (Berbatov 58); Rooney, Owen (Welbeck 72). Subs (not used): Foster, Park Ji-Sung, Tosic, Obertan.
REFEREE: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire)