United ride luck but maintain charge
Sometimes fortune favours the old. Just when Manchester United seemed the masters of the mundane, embarking on a leisurely stroll to victory rather than the fraught, frantic affairs that are supposed to characterise the title run-in, a 27-year-old referee came to the aid of a septuagenarian manager.
As Danny Murphy, whose days as United's nemesis date back to the last millennium, made a surprisingly sprightly 89th-minute break into the hosts' box, he was challenged clumsily by Michael Carrick. "I think everyone in the stadium expected a penalty," said Martin Jol. Everyone, it seemed, including Sir Alex Ferguson.
"They had a claim, there's no doubt about it," said the veteran manager. For those who are fluent in Fergusonese, it suggested a spot-kick should have been given. Yet referee Michael Oliver waved away Fulham's appeals. They departed Old Trafford pointless, as is their wont, while a disillusioned Dutchman had his rather jaundiced view of officials reinforced.
"This is not the first time, especially for me," added Jol, in charge of Tottenham when Pedro Mendes' shot went a yard over the line without resulting in a goal. "You have to be brave to give a penalty away at Manchester United." If he was cross, it is a safe assumption Man City boss Roberto Mancini was rather more cantankerous.
Yet isolated incidents can deflect from the narrative of a match. Courtesy of Wayne Rooney's eighth goal in six league games, United recorded a ninth win in 10 to return to the Premier League summit and establish a three-point lead over Manchester City. With the assurance experience offers, they have reeled in their rivals and surged past them. In this particular version of the steeplechase, the only sizeable hurdle on the path to the 20th title comes at the Etihad Stadium. The greater obstacles were overcome in January and February, giving March, April and May the look of a spring cruise.
Moreover, there is a familiarity to United chalking up three points on their own turf. Even a season that has contained three surreal scorelines at Old Trafford - when City and Blackburn won and Arsenal were demolished 8-2 - has been based on normality with victories churned out; some have been exhilarating, many, including this, were efficient and unexceptional but they all count.
So, too, do Rooney's goals. His second most productive season has now produced 28, the latest a defensive disaster for Fulham. Brede Hangeland leapt but failed to head Ashley Young's cross, it bounced off John Arne Riise's foot and Jonny Evans squared for Rooney to dispatch his shot past Mark Schwarzer.
It came three minutes before the break, yet United had barely tested the Australian. Before then, only Patrice Evra, with an improvised overhead kick, had came close and only the Frenchman, howling for a penalty that Ferguson felt should have been awarded, had betrayed any hint of anxiety.
Afterwards, Schwarzer tipped Young's curler past the post and made a double save to deny the winger. He blocked, too, when Antonio Valencia burst beyond the Fulham defence. Their involvement was no coincidence: United were at their most threatening on either flank, offering pace and trickery against exposed full-backs.
"We completely dominated the game until the last 15 minutes," Ferguson added. "But we never finished them off. But when a team sits in like that, it is very difficult to break down, whether they have 11 plumbers or 11 joiners."
Besides suggesting Ferguson has an inflated opinion of tradesmen's footballing skills, that is overly unfair on Fulham. They arrived for their annual defeat in endearingly enterprising mode. Jol's tactics can seem to seem somewhere between bold and kamikaze but more negative sides suffer heavier losses at Old Trafford. Fulham were at their finest in the first half when Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele escaped the attentions of United's central midfielders to break forward.
The American, befitting a man with 18 goals to his name this season, twice worked David De Gea; the Belgian, whose considerable talent has only produced two goals in 49 league games, skewed a shot well wide.
Dembele was sufficiently skilful to induce a foul from Ryan Giggs that could have resulted in his 904th United game bringing a first red card but, with De Gea a spectator for long periods, the hosts were comfortable enough to rest Rooney for the last few minutes. Rio Ferdinand, suffering from a stiff back, was also spared the final exchanges although, as he is Fulham's last scorer at Old Trafford, albeit six years ago, perhaps it was a precautionary move to preserve the clean sheet. As it was, that required Oliver's assistance.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Valencia - In a season when many have contributed in fits and spurts for United, the Ecuadorian has been an exception; excellent since the start of December, albeit with a month on the sidelines in that period. Few left-backs can enjoy an encounter with United's resident speedster.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Below par in many respects, they nonetheless got the job done. Their most impressive performers were in the centre of defence, where Ferdinand and Evans again dovetailed well, and on the flanks, where Young and Valencia prospered. Javier Hernandez, demoted to the bench, perhaps ought to be recalled; for all Danny Welbeck's attributes, the Mexican brings a predatory sharpness.
FULHAM VERDICT: Jol will breathe easier when Fulham reach 40 points although they should have few causes for concern. A side that is as open as they are can always lose games, and this was a third successive defeat, but they also possess the potential to win them. With Norwich and Bolton next, they could be safe by early April.