United widen the gap


SOCCER/Manchester Utd 3 Fulham 0:THERE IS a fundamental difference of opinion within Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson chose Fulham’s visit to officially declare the Premier League title a two-horse contest last night. His Manchester United players, however, suggested there may be fewer runners than that in the final straight.

The reigning champions cashed in their game in hand for a five-point lead over Liverpool at the top of the Premier League with a comprehensive defeat of Roy Hodgson’s side, one that assumed the air of an exhibition as Wayne Rooney scored within two minutes of his return from a hamstring strain, with his first touch, and where the only concern lay in protecting Edwin van der Sar’s clean sheet record. Title challenges are supposed to be more fraught than this.

Van der Sar moved to sixth in the all-time list of league clean sheets as United recorded their 14th shut-out and ninth league win in succession, the Dutchman now going 1,302 minutes without conceding in this competition. On this form the only fear United must have regarding a third league title in three seasons is complacency, and even the experienced voices in their squad should protect against that problem.

Paul Scholes had settled into his imperious stride even before a 12th minute goal that rolled back the years while illustrating his influence on the present. Always the man available to take pressure and possession off his defenders, and frequently dropping 50-yard passes onto the toes of Cristiano Ronaldo, the 34-year-old put United in the ascendancy before confirming as much with his first league goal of the season.

It was a strike that evoked memories of Valley Parade in March 2000, though Mark Schwarzer will hope this strike doesn’t linger in the collective conscious that long.

The breakthrough came courtesy of a corner on the United left, with Michael Carrick reprising the role of David Beckham against Bradford City and floating a delivery to an unmarked Scholes lurking outside the area. It was a routine they tried against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup fourth round last month, and here it paid the same dividends as Schwarzer got both hands on the midfielder’s volley only for the ball to squirm under the goalkeeper’s body and over the line.

Scholes raised an arm in celebration and then returned to the business of inspiring United onwards.

Bobby Zamora almost became the first man since Samir Nasri on November 8th last year to beat van der Sar with a towering header from John Pantsil’s cross that sailed narrowly wide of the Dutchman’s right-hand post. It was a rare interlude for Fulham in a night spent under siege.

Schwarzer made a second error when he collided with Aaron Hughes and fumbled a Ronaldo cross to the feet of Dimitar Berbatov. Only a fine challenge from Pantsil, which forced the Bulgarian wide, and a goalline clearance from Hughes prevented Fulham falling two behind inside the opening 20 minutes.

The Fulham goalkeeper did save well from Ronaldo and the visitors gained the benefit of a close but correct offside call when Berbatov converted a pass from Carlos Tevez, the Argentinean striker who announced to a radio station in his homeland yesterday that talks on a permanent move to Old Trafford are now on hold until the summer.

“The two parties have decided to wait until June before finding a definite solution,” said Tevez on his protracted transfer. “I would like to stay here for a few more years because it is very difficult to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world.” Especially on this form.

Berbatov finally got the goal he had been threatening on the half hour. Again the Fulham defence was found wanting, though again it was the vision and ingenuity of Scholes that truly hurt them when he received a pass from John O’Shea and lofted a glorious return ball back into the Waterfordman’s path. O’Shea turned the ball across a hesitant Fulham rearguard and Berbatov converted at close range.

United continued to dominate without reply and Rooney, having missed seven matches through injury, added to the carnival when he tapped in a wayward shot from Park Ji-Sung with his first touch of the game.

MANCHESTER UTD: Van der Sar, O’Shea (Evans 62), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Carrick (Gibson 69), Scholes, Park, Berbatov (Rooney 61), Tevez. Subs not used: Kuszczak, Nani, Rafael Da Silva, Fletcher. Booked: Park.

FULHAM: Schwarzer, Pantsil (Dacourt 67), Hangeland, Hughes, Kallio, Baird, Gera (Brown 86), Murphy (Milsom 80), Davies, Dempsey, Zamora. Subs not used: Zuberbuhler, Nevland, Gray, Smalling. Booked: Pantsil.

Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).