An enterprising Fulham side came so close to springing a massive surprise at Old Trafford this afternoon. Martin Jol maintained the bold approach that had seen the Whites sweep Norwich aside even against Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side barely prevailed by the end of an absorbing five-goal thriller. The wily Scot’s decision to demote Wayne Rooney in favour of Robin van Persie paid off and another summer signing Shinji Kagawa also scored, but boy the Red Devils were given a fright.

United had to show the resolve Ferguson called for in the wake of losing the title to Manchester City last term when they went behind as early as the third minute after defeat at Everton last week. The home crowd were stunned into silence when Damien Duff drove in a clever Bryan Ruiz free-kick to give Jol’s men a shock lead after excellent interplay between Alex Kacaniklic and Mladen Petric. That typified Fulham’s desire to go at their illustrious opponents on their home turf.

But Fulham couldn’t keep United quiet for long. There was an inevitability about the equaliser arriving from the boot of van Persie – and the Dutchman opened his Old Trafford account in the grandest of style, volleying majestically past a helpless Mark Schwarzer from a fine Patrice Evra cross. That leveller galvanised United, who took a firm grip on the contest, with Kagawa increasingly influential from an advanced midfield position. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia spurned good opportunities, but it was the Japanese playmaker who prodded Ferguson’s side in front after Schwarzer had pushed away Tom Cleverley’s strike.

The rampaging Rafael shrugged off having a goal ruled out for offside to increase United’s advantage when he popped up at the far post to head home a Young cross. Fulham continued to go forward at will and David de Gea produced an outstanding save to deny Petric and Ruiz somehow spooning the rebound over from five yards. The visitors continued to threaten in the second period and more than merited their route back into the contest – even if it came in shambolic circumstances. De Gea flapped horrendously at a cross from Matthew Briggs and, where there appeared no danger at all, the ball rolled into the net off the backpedalling Nemanja Vidic.

United had already enjoyed a real let off when Michael Carrick, used at centre back again, nearly turned a cross into his own net and were under siege for the final quarter of an hour. Rooney arrived as a substitute but struggled to stem the flow. The hosts had to hold on as Mousa Dembele took centre stage, with the Belgian brilliantly denied twice by de Gea. Vidic slid in to prevent Hugo Rodallega from levelling and, from Fulham’s final attack, de Gea kept out Ruiz after the Costa Rican had been artfully played in by the dangerous Dembele. So close to a point for Jol, but plenty of positive signs after a pulsating encounter.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Evra, Carrick, Vidic; Anderson (Giggs 81), Cleverley; Valencia, Young (Welbeck 68), Kagawa (Rooney 68); van Persie. Subs (not used): Lindegaard, Evans, Scholes.

GOALS: van Persie (10), Kagawa (35), Rafael (41).

FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra (Baird 81), Dembele, Duff, Kacaniklic (Sidwell 62); Ruiz; Petric (Rodallega 72). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Halliche.

BOOKED: Hangeland.

GOALS: Duff (3), Vidic (o.g. 64).

REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).