Manchester United would have been prepared for another titanic struggle at Craven Cottage tonight. Fulham have offered a stern test of their title credentials in recent years, dismantling makeshift defences and securing many a shock result. However, this was cruise control for the champions. United were able to cast off worrying injuries to Phil Jones and Ashley Young and still win by a troubling margin. Some of Fulham’s defending was simply abject.
Sir Alex Ferguson described his side’s first half display as the best he’s seen all the season but even if United were close to their mesmeric best, Fulham were far too accommodating. Martin Jol touched on the importance of controlling the midfield and shutting down the flanks if his side were to match their visitors, but his side were far too limp. They never recovered from conceding an early goal to England striker Danny Welbeck and allowed the champions plenty of space in which to probe.
The first goal illustrated this almost perfectly. Fulham’s tactics appeared to be simple: let United have the ball at the back and concentrate on limiting the space for their wide players and in the final third. They failed for the simple reason that the second part of that plan never materialised. There appeared little danger when Nani received the ball just inside his own half down the United left. Both Bryan Ruiz and Danny Murphy looked as though they were blocking the Portuguese winger’s route forward. But Nani surged away from the Costa Rican, whose tracking back was lamentable, and exploited the space as the Fulham skipper was drawn inside by the threat from midfield runners. Chris Baird, who endured a torrid evening at right back, failed to get close enough to prevent the low cross and with Philippe Senderos in no man’s land in front of the near post, Welbeck had a simple low finish across a stranded David Stockdale.
Such was United’s dominance from that point that they were hardly bothered by the departure of Jones and Young. The talented centre half, who has been an imposing central midfielder as Ferguson has sought to solve the lack of steel in central areas for United, gamely tried to battle on after taking a stray elbow from Clint Dempsey to the face but was eventually forced to admit defeat. Ferguson boldly replaced the teenager with Young, whose evening was later ended prematurely by a tackle from Dickson Etuhu, but the game was well won by that point.
Fulham were pulled apart at will, despite having a decent spell when only a goal down. Only a fine saving tackle from Jones in his own penalty area prevented Ruiz from supplying an immediate equaliser but that a fleeting glimpse of parity for the home side. At the other end, Jol’s side switched off at a corner and United made them pay. Giggs and Antonio Valencia swapped passes from a short corner and the Welshman’s floated cross found Nani inexplicably unmarked at the near post. He nodded across the goal unattended, with neither Stockdale or the waiting Rooney able to apply another touch.
Any lingering doubts about the destination of the three points were expunged by United’s just before half time. With John Arne Riise caught upfield and labouring to return to the left back position, Nani danced into the penalty area, surging away from the committed Hangeland and teeing up Giggs. His shot deflected off the diving Senderos and looped over Stockdale and into the net. The three-goal cushion was the least United’s dominance deserved and the contest was offer before the shrill of Mark Halsey’s half-time whistle allowed Jol to spell out some home truths to his players.
Fulham were much better after the interval and Andy Johnson spurned enough chances to make a game of it. Although one snapshot produced a fine save from stand-in goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the former Crystal Palace and Everton striker should have done better with three further opportunities from close range. He’ll have to show more of the predatory form that characterised his blistering start to the season should he want to persuade Fulham to offer an improved contract extension. Those misses cast further doubt on Jol’s decision not to start with Bobby Zamora, who had dominated Jonny Evans on his three previous visits to the Cottage. The England striker, given only six minutes as an afterthought, created two openings as time ticked away but you sense he may well be on his way come January.
Fulham’s profligacy was punished late on by two sublime strikes at the other end. Rooney lashed home a deserved goal with characteristic verve and venom, a 25-yarder swerving away from Stockdale and in via the far post before substitute Dmitar Berbabov completed the rout with a classy backheeled flick after Valencia and Nani had conjured enough space for the Bulgarian at the near post. Fulham’s season can go one of two ways now – Jol will be hoping the embarrassment will spur his side to a marked improvement as they head towards the new year.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Baird (Kelly 74), J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Etuhu, Murphy; Dembele, Ruiz, Dempsey (Zamora 85); Johnson. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Gecov, Duff, Frei.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Jones (Young 20; Park Ji-Sung 58), Evra, Smalling, Evans; Giggs, Carrick, Nani, Valencia; Rooney, Welbeck (Berbatov 76). Subs (not used): De Gea, Rafael, Fryers, Hernandez.
GOALS: Welbeck (5), Nani (28), Giggs (43), Rooney (88), Berbatov (90).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Bolton).