A sensational strike from Paul Pogba ensured Manchester United returned to the top of the Premier League but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were pushed all the way by Fulham in an engaging encounter at Craven Cottage this evening. Scott Parker’s side had the temerity to take an early lead courtesy of a cool finish from Ademola Lookman and were well in the game even after the visitors established their expected dominance once Edinson Cavani had pounced on an Alphonse Areola error to level. That it took a moment of magic from the much maligned Frenchman to tilt this tie the way of the title contenders shows just how far Fulham have come of late, but that distinction will matter little to Parker.
After an FA Cup tie with Burnley this weekend, the Whites face a critical double header with their relegation rivals. A trip to Brighton is followed by a visit to the Hawthorns and Parker will be desperate to add additional firepower before those fixtures if at all possible. Fulham created plenty of presentable opportunities but couldn’t convert their openings and a lack of ruthlessness in the final third threatens to undermine all of Parker’s hard work in plugging a leaky defence with a smart change of system. Ruben Loftus-Cheek spurned a glorious chance to equalise and, in the last minute of added time, a back header from Aleksandar Mitrovic deflected off Eric Bailly and fell the wrong side of the far post with David de Gea beaten.
Parker made a pair of enforced changes from the side that were unfortunate to be beaten in the SW6 derby on Saturday with Joe Bryan replacing the suspended Antonee Robinson and Loftus-Cheek, ineligible against his parent club, coming in for the banned Bobby Decordova-Reid. The instructions were similar and United were rattled by Fulham’s frenetic start, symbolised by Lookman driving with purpose at the visiting defence. He saw a speculative shot blocked before sending another straight at De Gea from twenty yards.
Solskjaer’s side didn’t heed the early warning, although the goal had a bit of subtly about it. Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa flighted a lovely ball over a horribly square United back line, with Lookman galloping clear and finding the bottom corner with a precise finish. Harry Maguire had been attracted to Ruben Loftus-Cheek stationed way on the left, Bailly inexplicably failed to read the danger in front of him – fatally pushing up to play offside when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was stationed far deeper than his two centre backs.
Fulham’s resolute defence hadn’t really been tested, although the Red Devils gradually garnered the lion’s share of possession. Bruno Fernandes became increasing influential, dropping into pockets of space outside the Fulham box, and the Portuguese playmaker was heavily involved as United drew level. He crashed a 25 yarder against the post and then popped up on the left as Fulham scrambled to clear their lines. Areola anticipated the low ball in, but split it at his near post and Cavani, the master-poacher that he is, was on hand to roll home the equaliser. The French goalkeeper has been fantastic for Fulham this season but two errors in as many games have cost Fulham dearly.
He did partially redeem himself with a flying save two minutes later to prevent another Fernandes piledriver from putting United ahead and the visitors might have felt they should have headed in at half-time in the ascendancy after both Maguire and Anthony Martial failed to hit the target with free headers. Fulham responded in feisty fashion after the restart: an ambitious drive from Harrison Reed comfortably cleared the crossbar, but Loftus-Cheek produced an impudent stepover to maraud past Maguire and flash a dangerous ball across the six-yard and then set up Lookman, whose sidefooted effort was too close to De Gea.
Areola twice saved from Fernandes and Martial – although it transpired than both of those efforts would have been chalked off for offside – as United worked Fulham’s disciplined defence from one side of the pitch to the other. With Joachim Andersen heading cross after cross clear, you sensed it was going to take something special to break the deadlock and Pogba eventually provided it midway through the second period. There appeared to be little danger as the Frenchman collected possession wide on the right, riding challenges from Reed and Cavaleiro, and glancing to the opposite flank in search of pass. When none was on, he curled a majestic finish into the far corner, leaving Areola grasping at air.
Areola kept Fulham in it moments later with a brilliant reflex save to claw away another Cavani header and, after Parker rung the changes, his side shrugged off their disappointment and went for broke. Substitute Aboubakar Kamara threaded a lovely ball for Loftus-Cheek to run onto, but the Chelsea loanee – finally showing why Fulham were so keen to bring him in this summer – saw his low effort from an acute angle saved by De Gea’s legs.
Mitrovic was sent on as a focal point for more frenzied Fulham attacks and his introduction almost had the desired effect. Shaw, preoccupied by Mitrovic’s hulking presence at the far post, backheeled a Lookman cross straight to Loftus-Cheek sixteen yards out but the England midfielder’s hurried finish ended up high in the Putney End. Wan-Bissaka flung himself at a Lookman shot to concede a corner from which Fulham kept the pressure on and a brilliant ball in by Kenny Tete was headed towards goal by Mitrovic and diverted agonising past the far post by the unwitting Bailly. Such are the fine margins in the top flight. Fulham’s luck is definitely out at the moment, but Parker’s pugnacious side certainly won’t be throwing in the towel.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina (Mitrovic 83), Adarabioyo, Andersen; Tete, Bryan, Reed, Anguissa (Lemina 79); Lookman, Loftus-Cheek, Cavaleiro (Kamara 70). Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Ream, Odoi, Onomah, Kebano.
BOOKED: Anguissa, Bryan, Aina.
GOAL: Lookman (5).
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, Bailly, Maguire; Fred, Pogba; Grenwood (Rashford 85), Martial (McTominay 85), Fernandes (Matic 90+4); Cavani. Subs (not used): Henderson, Telles, Tuanzebe, van de Beek, Mata, James.
GOAL: Cavani (21), Pogba (65).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).