Hangeland makes amends for Fulham
Fulham 2 Manchester Utd 2:AT THE close of a weekend when major clubs such as Chelsea and Arsenal enjoyed victories heavy enough to break the scales, there was a match that hung exhilaratingly in the balance.
Manchester United will still be infuriated that they have been party to entertainment of this sort. They went 2-1 ahead in the 84th minute when Brede Hangeland recorded an own goal as a Nani corner deflected off him, but the Fulham centre-half tied the score at 2-2 when he headed home from a Damien Duff corner in the last minute.
That would have been gripping enough but the recovery was feasible merely because United had not accepted an invitation to go 3-1 in front and kill off the contest. With three minutes remaining, Nani’s penalty kick was saved by David Stockdale after Duff was deemed to have handled.
United were not efficient enough to complete their task, but the memorable factor in the outcome was the endeavour and persistence of Fulham.
A win would have been preferable, but the new manager, Mark Hughes, now has his name tied to a day that will be relished by the Craven Cottage regulars.
Roy Hodgson’s successor maintained the trend of a fixture taking on a life of its own. The match programme even carried an advert for a DVD of Fulham victories over United.
There were three of them listed, the earliest dating back to 2003. The existence of such a product underlined the pride taken in any win over these visitors.
United appreciate the price on their head and would have been particularly conscious of losses at Craven Cottage in the past two campaigns, the more recent by a 3-0 margin eight months ago.
In the circumstances Alex Ferguson’s side were predictably eager for the occasion, although the dominance was not to be sustained. United were ahead in the 11th minute.
Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia linked before Dimitar Berbatov laid the ball back for Paul Scholes to drill a finish low past the left hand of Stockdale.
The goalkeeper was deputising for the injured Mark Schwarzer, who is the subject of interest from Arsenal. It is Scholes, though, who intrigues. A watching Fabio Capello should have been reproaching himself for not making a personal plea to the midfielder to come back to international duty. The Italian delegated the job to the general manager Franco Baldini.
Capello could still make such an overture, but Scholes will be 37 by the time of the Euro 2012 finals and he faded in the second half here.
Indeed, United completed the day looking as if they were a little too dependent on a man kept on the field for the full 90 minutes while others were replaced.
In the context of a hard-fought encounter, Scholes was deemed indispensable.
All the same, not even the midfielder could have cowed Fulham even if he was fresh. They remain a well-structured and methodical side despite the departure of Hodgson to Liverpool. The team inherited by Hughes began to develop some modest pressure before the interval.
When Edwin van der Sar was called into action, he made a fine double save. A Clint Dempsey backheel set up Dickson Etuhu in the 31st minute.
Although the goalkeeper blocked the initial attempt the midfielder should have tucked home the rebound, but Van der Sar, almost sitting on the ground, still turned the effort over the bar.
United were not to be spared in the 57th minute. Duff beat Patrice Evra on the right wing and slid the ball behind the centre-back Jonny Evans to Bobby Zamora. The striker’s low cross was swept beyond Van der Sar by Simon Davies.
Fulham would show their mettle in the even more impressive recovery that was to be demanded of them. This is no easy assignment for Hughes. He does, after all, follow a predecessor who took Fulham to the Europa League final in May. Despite the largess of the owner Mohamed Al Fayed throughout a lengthy period, there will be no wild excursion in the transfer market.
It is Hughes’s good fortune instead to enjoy the inheritance of Hodgson’s labours, even if gradual alteration is essential with the passage of time.
In the initial phase of his tenure, the newcomers’ efforts must focus on conversation. His life will be far simpler if the efficiency and discipline of Hodgson’s period go on being instantly recognisable.
A conservation order must also be slapped on the spirit of the team.
Duff is 31 now and could have attempted to redefine himself as some sort of playmaker, but he is still ready to tear at a full-back, even one with the renown of Evra.
United have plenty of time to impose themselves. Hughes, for his part, will start to feel confident there are more days to come with Fulham that he will cherish.