United grind out victory as Rooney supplies another exquisite finish
Fulham 0 Manchester Utd 1:Manchester United were frustrated by committed defenders and struck the woodwork three times as they were stretched by opponents who grew into a mesmerising contest. This had felt like a test of the league leaders’ credentials, though it ended up as a statement of their intent.
“Sometimes you play against them and you think you have done well, created chances, but in the end they win 1-0,” said Fulham defender Sascha Riether. “United are champions if they can win games like that.”
Since losing at Norwich City in mid-November United have dropped four points in 13 unbeaten matches. The most daunting away game to come is arguably at Arsenal – where they have won on three of their last four visits in all competitions – in late April and the onus will be on Manchester City to win at Old Trafford before then if they are to be caught. Losing the league last term has left scars and they are in no mood for a repeat.
Saturday’s success offered a reminder of why history should not repeat itself this time.
This contest, briefly interrupted when the floodlights failed before the interval, was desperately tight with Fulham, even devoid of Dimitar Berbatov, so much more impressive than the previous week when they had been humiliated by these opponents in the FA Cup.
United may have clipped the posts and bar three times to Fulham’s one, but it was Martin Jol’s side who made much of the running after the interval and appeared to be hammering on the door of an eye-catching victory. And yet, amid the home side’s pressure, the visitors’ firepower made its mark with Wayne Rooney’s beautifully guided finish around Aaron Hughes and beyond Mark Schwarzer after Philippe Senderos had misjudged an optimistic punt down the line.
The England striker was operating on the left flank by then as Javier Hernandez’s introduction had forced a rejig with Robin van Persie also central.
“Javier stretched them a little bit and gave Wayne some room on that far side of the pitch,” said United manager Alex Ferguson.
Victory in tight contests such as this injects conviction as well as momentum into title challenges. It is the sheer strength in depth that suggests there will no repeat of last season’s implosion over the run-in. Hernandez was introduced midway through the second period, with Rooney retaining his bite out wide. Van Persie did not score but he was a constant menace, with Ryan Giggs offering up some late class.
Danny Welbeck had six minutes at the end to stretch a weary rearguard on the break.
“To see Welbeck coming on . . . just to hurt you . . . it was a little bit frightening,” said Jol. “They not only have the best team but the best squad as well.”
However, Jol could draw encouragement from the sight of his players testing David de Gea and from Urby Emanuelson’s cameo as a substitute, with others plucked late on in a frantic transfer window to be granted time to find their feet.