Hands up who expected Fulham to get anything from Old Trafford yesterday? There can’t have been many. The slight alterations in Roy Hodgson’s team selection might have reflected that as he chopped and changed with Thursday’s second leg against Juventus in mind. Manchester United were kept at bay for 45 gritty minutes but scored almost as soon as the second half got underway and two late goals gave the scoreline a more convincing look.
The victory takes Sir Alex Ferguson’s side two points clear of Chelsea at the top of the table, though they have played a game more than Carlo Ancelotti’s men. Almost as importantly, Wayne Rooney looked in irresistable form again. He might have had a couple of goals in the first period, buzzing around the Fulham box with intent, and had Dimitar Berbatov not sent a simple header over the bar, Fulham would have had a mountain to climb long before the England striker opened the scoring 30 seconds in the second half.
Fulham were disciplined as ever in defence and they needed to be alert in the very early stages as a teasing run from Anton Valencia put the Whites on the back foot. Only an untimely slip in front of goal prevented Rooney from grabbing an early goal with Schwarzer prone and Aaron Hughes scrambling to try and make a tackle. Nani, warming to the task at Old Trafford after a slow start to his United career, was a threat down the left and Berbatov should have done better than guide his near post header wide.
There were plenty of desperate last-ditch blocks too. Hangeland felt the full force of a meaty Berbatov strike and Rooney appealed for a penalty against Stephen Kelly when the Irishman turned his back on a shot and the ball struck his arm. It would have been exceedingly harsh, but Ferguson’s side do normally get those at home. Rooney curled a long-ranger only fractions wide and Schwarzer denied him from close range as United were forced to go in at the break on level terms.
This was a gritty effort from Hodgson’s side who carved out a few chances of their own. The lively Clint Dempsey, starting a game for the first time since January, seized on a defensive mistake and drove over from distance whilst Danny Murphy, booed for his Liverpool connections, played a beautiful lofted ball for Bobby Zamora but the striker’s impudent first-time chip went over both Edwin van der Sar and the crossbar.
Hodgson introduced Damien Duff for the second period, but the problems were immediate at the other end of the field. Fulham never really got themselves organised and Rooney and Nani worked a one-two which allowed the Portuguese to thread a cross between three Fulham defenders, allowing Rooney to roll in a simple finish from nine yards. United pressed for the second goal, but Fulham held firm despite Schwarzer fumbling a shot from Nani, a mad moment of pinball in their penalty area and Rio Ferdinand’s volley that went just wide.
Whilst it stayed at 1-0 you felt Fulham still had a chance. Zamora will reflect on the opportunity created by a clever flick from Erik Nevland that seemed to send him through on goal, but he seemed to hesitate slightly, allowing Nemanja Vidic to slide in and make a saving tackle. Any hopes of an unlikely point disappeared as United put the game to bed in the final five minutes. Fulham had battled gallantly in midfield for much of the contest, with Chris Baird outstanding again alongside Danny Murphy, but they had no answer to the brilliant Berbatov.
The Bulgarian cheekily nutmegged Nicky Shorey and burst away from both the left-back and Baird before teeing up Rooney for his second. The former Tottenham forward got the goal his display deserved with team running out. Rooney prized open the Fulham defence with a glorious crossfield pass that found Park Ji-Sung in space. The Korean’s cross was perfect allowing Berbatov to plant a majestic header wide of Schwarzer. 3-0 might have been a little harsh given Fulham’s endeavour but it’s on to thoughts of overturning that Juventus deficit now.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): van der Sar; Neville (Fabio 87), Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic; Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia (Park 73), Nani; Berbatov, Rooney. Subs (not used): Kuszczak, Gill, Evans, Obertan, Diouf.
GOALS: Rooney (46, 84), Berbatov (89).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland (Greening 62); Baird, Murphy, Davies (Duff 45), Gera; Dempsey (Nevland 72); Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Dikgacoi, Okaka.
REFEREE: Mike Jones (The Wirral)