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Rene Meulensteen identified Tuesday night’s FA Cup humbling by Sheffield United as Fulham’s ‘rock bottom’. If you measure a side by how they respond to adversity, this was impressive. On his return to Old Trafford, a man rumoured to have been given two more games to prolong his brief tenure as Fulham’s firefighter-in-chief, made decisive changes. Out went captain Brede Hangeland and seasoned professional Scott Parker in a reshaped side that was designed to stifle United’s creativity and test the character of a club itself struggling under new management.

For 79 minutes, the plan worked perfectly. Fulham pinched a goal from their first real attack, with Lewis Holtby lifting a sumptuous ball over United’s central defence for Steve Sidwell to steer on the stretch into the bottom corner after making a surging run from central midfield. Fulham defended deep, but diligently: young Dan Burn was imperious in the air and stand-in skipper Sidwell embodied the desire of a side that steadfastly refused to buckle in the face of mounting pressure. But United, the masters of crucial comebacks, scored twice in a minute. First, Robin van Persie poked home at the far post from an Antonio Valenica cross and, scarcely seconds later, Michael Carrick’s drive from the edge of the box found the far corner via a Scott Parker deflection.

The relief around Old Trafford was tangible. Champions’ League football – the bare minimum expected by the Glazers – might have slipped out of view had David Moyes’ men faltered here. They had ten minutes to see out against the league’s bottom club and, initially, looked as if they might inflict further damage on Fulham’s horrendous goal difference. To their immense credit, the visitors roused themselves again. It was Wayne Rooney, by now deployed in a deep midfield role, whose sliding challenge blocked Holtby’s hopeful shot, but Fulham came again. In the third minute of injury time, Sidwell snaffled a loose ball ahead of Michael Carrick and slipped a pass out to the tireless Kieran Richardson. The former Manchester United midfielder had squandered a glorious chance to double Fulham’s lead before half-time by shooting wildly high, but this time David de Gea could only push his shot upwards and in came substitute Darren Bent, ahead of Nemanja Vidic, to head home the most unbelievable of equalisers.

On the balance of play, Fulham should have been dead and buried, but for their fortitude alone, Meulensteen’s men merited their point. Written off by almost everybody after their Cup exit to League One strugglers in midweek, there was a hint of the well-drilled Hodgson era about their defending. New recruits added energy to what was previously a leggy line-up. Ryan Tunnicliffe, until recently on loan at Ipswich from Old Trafford, made his Premier League start against his first club having been brought up in Trafford. Muamer Tankovic, notionally deployed as a centre forward, did plenty of running but most of it was towards his own goal rather than in the direction of De Gea’s. Johnny Heitinga, preferred to Hangeland at the heart of the defence, was solid whilst Wiliam Kvist broke up a myriad of Manchester United attacks in front of a deep back four.

United enjoyed plenty of possession but struggled to extend Maarten Stekelenburg for much of the first half. Robin van Persie spurned the best chance, snatching at a volley from inside the six-yard box, just after United went behind, and Juan Mata toiled anonymously on the wing. Half chances came, but Rooney curled an effort wide from range and Burn and Sascha Riether regularly repelled United’s aerial bombardment that came in the form of crosses. Fulham had the best chance before the break, brilliantly created by a superb run from Tankovic, but Richardson, who had sprinted from his own six-yard box to join the move, failed to apply the finishing touch.

The second half seldom saw a Fulham break as the white shirts retreated deeper and deeper in a bid to preserve their precious advantage. A low van Persie cross narrowly eluded a desperate Rooney, who was then denied by a splendid Stekelenburg save after a sweeping move involving Patrica Evra and Mata. Moyes sent on Adnan Januzaj and, then, Valencia and Hernandez, as United went to all-out-attack, but even after establishing supremacy through the late strikes from van Persie and Carrick, the champions couldn’t hold on.

Moyes spoke afterwards about Fulham scarcely deserving a point, but there have been too many near misses for United now. Seldom does any side, least of all, the one bottom of the pile, park the bus at Old Trafford and score two. Incredibly, Meulensteen’s version of the Great Escape might have begun in Manchester.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafeal (Valencia 69), Evra, Vidic, Smalling; Carrick, Fletcher (Januzaj 62); Mata, Young (Hernandez 69), Rooney; van Persie. Subs (not used): Lindegaard, Ferdinand, Giggs, Kagawa.

GOALS: van Persie (79), Carrick (80).

FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Riise, Heitinga, Burn; Kvist (Cole 80), Sidwell, Tunnicliffe (Parker 65), Richardson; Holtby, Tankovic (Bent 45). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Hangeland, Duff, Kacaniklic.

GOALS: Sidwell (19), Bent (90).

REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).

ATTENDANCE: 79,966.