Fulham 1 Manchester United 2
On a sodden, freezing Wednesday night in west London Manchester United came from behind to claim a fiercely-fought 2-1 win against an impressive, resilient Fulham team.
The result leaves United top of the Premier League table, and extends to 17 matches their unbeaten away run, equalling the all-time club record. Best of all it arrived thanks to a moment of the highest quality from Paul Pogba, who was a quietly majestic presence in midfield.
This always looked a stiffer test for the visitors than the table might suggest. With a mist of dense January rain barrelling in over the skeleton of the new stand, United were forced to dig into their own reserves against an impressively well-organised Fulham team.
United sent out a team that looked ready to play. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has almost a full squad to choose from, an injury-free run that has formed part of this team's mid-season surge. The manager spoke a lot about the need for extreme physical conditioning in his first season. All of these United regulars look fiercely, combatively fit.
Eric Bailly was rotated back into the defence. Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood started in attack. Paul Pogba dropped into deep midfield, a creative, progressive move in the absence of the gristlier Scott McTominay.
Fulham kicked off with the freezing wind at their backs. They looked hungry from the off.
Ademola Lookman had an early skimmer from 25 yards, and then stunning the empty stands with the opening goal on five minutes.
Lookman finished brilliantly, haring off all alone into the right side of the United area before spanking a low hard shot into the far corner. Solskjær will wonder at the time and space given to the impressive André-Frank Anguissa to play him in and the lack of cover for the run. United had been cut open with a single pass by a team that hadn’t scored here in three games.
Pogba was booked for tripping Lookman as he sprinted in on goal again. United might have had a penalty after a trip on Fred moments before. And steadily they began to press Fulham back, Pogba moving the ball nicely though the midfield.
First Bruno Fernandes clanked a shot against the foot of the post from outside the box. Moments later he crossed from the left, the ball was palmed out by Alphonse Areola and Cavani, lurking in just the right spot, finished neatly. Cavani celebrated with a shout. This was his first post-ban goal.
Pogba ran the game in patches in that first half. Before kick-off United’s star midfielder had wandered around his team-mates offering encouragement. Here he passed wonkily at first, but showed such calm and craft on the ball his air of command seemed to spread through the red shirts.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka made good ground several times down the right, crossing for Anthony Martial to head just over with half an hour gone. By now the game had settled into the predictable press of red possession. But Fulham's midfield pivot proved an aggressive, hard-pressing obstacle, with Lookman always busy on the break.
Fulham were bright at the start of the second half, Harrison Reed shooting powerfully over the bar after more good work from Lookman on the left. United looked a cautious team at times even as they hogged the ball, with Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly stationed 20 metres behind the red line ahead of them and rarely stepping in to allow the midfield to push on.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek showed some fine touches on the right, teeing up Lookman for a shot that David de Gea saved comfortably. Pogba produced one beautiful whipped deep cross.
With 64 minutes gone the game seemed to be meandering at 1-1, with Fulham still showing real discipline in midfield.
At which point, enter Pogba, who pulled the ball down out of the sky on the right flank, wandered inside, saw the space in front of him and walloped a wonderful curling shot inside the far post.
The ball made a thrilling fizz as it left Pogba’s boot, and a clang as it bulged the net. At the midpoint this season could, frankly, go either way for any of these teams at the top. But this was a piece of champion skill.
Fulham pressed hard and had a chance to equalise soon after Loftus-Cheek seeing his low shot well saved by De Gea.
Another fine driving run opened up a chance that he blazed miles over the bar. By the end United had Fred, McTominay and Pogba in a tight knot across the midfield, and were grateful at the death for a fine saving challenge from Wan-Bissaka. – Guardian