Performances like this suggest that the idea of Craven Cottage as Fulham’s fortress might not be a thing of the past. Martin Jol’s side were spirited and well-organised and far more feisty than a week ago at Old Trafford, when they exited the FA Cup without as much as a whimper against the same opponents, but were denied a deserved point by a decisive piece of predatory finishing from Wayne Rooney.
The England forward’s 80th-minute winner stretched United’s lead at the top of the table for ten minutes but for much of an absorbing encounter it was far from certain that Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges would record their fifth straight success over Fulham. The home side started at a high tempo – buoyed by the midweek win over West Ham – and their energy was typified by Greek veteran Giorgos Karagounis, who, together with Chris Baird, battled manfully to blunt the creativity of Tom Cleverley and restrict Michael Carrick’s influence.
Hugo Rodallega was full of running up front, locating Ashkan Dejagah to fashion the game’s first chance, and his aerial agility posed plenty of problems for the returning Rio Ferdinand. Fulham were bold from the first whistle, but also looked far more assured defensively than at any time since November. The Whites did ride their luck on occasions, with United unsure how they hadn’t managed to break the deadlock eight minutes in from Carrick’s corner. Mark Schwarzer somehow palmed away an Antonio Valencia header that bounced off Brede Hangeland and, after Patrice Evra’s shot was blocked, Sascha Riether cleared a Rooney effort off the line.
Fulham flew forward and John Arne Riise was denied his first goal in two seasons at Craven Cottage by a stupendous save by the back-peddling David De Gea as his swerving 30-yard dipped underneath the bar and, when the Spanish keeper was beaten, Bryan Ruiz’s low drive came back off the post. United’s adventure was undimmed, however, and Brede Hangeland headed against his own woodwork at a corner before Rooney found the far post with a clever curler after being found by a smart Cleverley pass. Then came an eleven minute stoppage as the floodlights failed just before half-time with the visitors preparing to take another corner.
Fulham’s defensive resolve survived a reshuffle as Aaron Hughes replaced the injured Hangeland and United got more direct as the second half progressed. The previously anonymous Robin van Persie raced onto a lofted Carrick ball and crossed for Nani, whose deflected shot ruffled the side netting. Baird timed a challenge perfectly to end a threatening United break and then found himself in space about 20 yards out but his low shot was smothered by De Gea. Van Persie somehow contrived to shoot straight at Schwarzer from a Nani cross, while Karagounis dragged a drive wide and Riether’s speculative strike from inside the area was pushed away by De Gea.
Ferguson threw on Javier Hernandez – and went to an adventurous 4-3-3 in search of a winner – which arrived ten minutes from time when Senderos failed to reach Patrice Evra’s punt and Rooney scampered into the area and shot into the far corner through Hughes and a partially unsighted Schwarzer. Fulham continued to press forward and were denied an equaliser at the death when van Persie nodded Senderos’ header off his own line.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hangeland (Hughes 45), Senderos; Karagounis (Emanuelson 68), Baird, Duff, Dejagah (Petric 82); Ruiz; Rodallega. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Frimpong, Davies, Kacaniklic.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Evra, Ferdinand, Evans; Carrick, Cleverley (Giggs 75), Nani (Welbeck 84), Valencia (Hernandez 66); Rooney, van Persie. Subs (not used): Amos, Smalling, Anderson, Kagawa.
GOAL: Rooney (80).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicester).