De Gea and Rooney see Man United triumph

Posted by Mark Payne

Wayne Rooney is in no mood to sacrifice the role of top dog at Manchester United. The league leaders struggled for large periods here in London, but it was the Red Devils' No. 10 who broke the deadlock. A reminder to fans that he isn't finished yet, no matter how good Robin van Persie has been.

- Rooney turns spotlight on rivals

After last week's walkover, nobody expected anything other than a straightforward victory for United at Craven Cottage and another authoritative stamp on the season's title race. Those presumptions proved to be ill founded as a muscular and adventurous Fulham side demonstrated they are a different proposition at home.

The first half began with United's wingers, Nani and Antonio Valencia, cutting inside to feed Van Persie and Rooney. In particular, it was nice to see Nani and Van Persie in the same side. They are both tricky players and must be a nightmare for the opposition.

United had the lion's share of the ball in the opening stages and had a ludicrous triple chance in the eighth minute, which a combination of Mark Schwarzer, the bar and a header off the line kept out.

At the other end, Fulham were determined to make inroads, and the absence of injured Dimitar Berbatov meant that other players felt encouraged to try their luck on goal.

This alchemy led to an exciting opening period in which both sides hit the post, and at times the match looked like a 'closest miss' competition. Fulham showed much more endeavour than was anticipated and were unlucky not to be rewarded.

Sir Alex Ferguson had bemoaned the lack of ruthlessness before the match and had again reminded all that "goal difference" could be significant. If he could berate the goalposts, he would.

There was another ringing endorsement from Sir Alex for David de Gea with the Spaniard starting again, no questions asked. The fans have given their backing to their No. 1, and the distasteful criticism of the goalkeeper is not being listened to at Old Trafford.

Both keepers had to earn their money in this fixture. Schwarzer was jumping all over the place keeping out United's efforts. Not to be outdone, De Gea made the kind of athletic save that only he is capable of, from a Bryan Ruiz thunderbolt - stretching full length to get a finger to the ball and turn it onto the post.

A floodlight failure at the end of the first half was met by a giant cheer, and the flashbulbs made a dark Craven Cottage look like a rock concert. Play was stopped for five minutes, but the light-switch was eventually found. Both goalkeepers probably appreciated the break.

With the Wilfried Zaha signing going through, there is scrutiny on the wingers at United. Valencia and Nani should see the next six months as an opportunity to apply for further employment. There were signs here that Valencia might be rediscovering some form after a wobbly period. But a lacklustre beginning to the second half had calls for Shinji Kagawa ringing out from the away end.

The last half-hour was an increasingly frantic affair for United. Fulham kept testing the defence, and chance after chance was scrambled away. As Fergie was pondering which changes to make, Rafael hoofed the ball forward and Rooney latched on to it. He bore down on goal, and the defenders gawped at him as he picked out the corner for his shot.

It was a cold-blooded finish delivered with such pace that it was almost forgotten that Fulham had looked more likely to score in the second half. They rolled the dice against United here but eventually came unstuck. This was not a convincing afternoon from the league leaders, but they did just enough. It is the kind of thing champions do. Ten points clear.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

ESPN Conversations