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Rooney goes missing in smash and grab

Fulham 1-2 Manchester United

It was for days like this that Manchester United snapped up the mercurial talents of Wayne Rooney.

Such an vast investment in a relatively unproven performer was always going to be a gamble of sorts, yet Sir Alex Ferguson was convinced he was landing the world's most gifted young player, a man around whom he could build his next title winning side.

That champion side may now be in place, yet it has come together amid an alarming decline in fortunes for England's golden boy. While a handful of decent performances and the odd spectacular goal have dotted the season for the 21-year-old, Rooney is still striving to add consistency to his flashes of brilliance and amid a curiously off-key United performance against Fulham, their over-hyped match winner went missing.

His youthful age can be used as an excuse to explain the odd off-day, but the lows have outweighed the highs time and again for Rooney this season and as he trudged around this old ground looking as if he had an entire plate of chips on his shoulder, you dare to wonder whether this explosive Scouser is, in fact, the real deal.

A marketing giant who has been used to launch many a product in the last couple of years, there comes a moment when Rooney has to show he is worthy of his reputation and he spectacularly failed to do that here at Craven Cottage.

Looking off the pace and cursing at any player or referee who came within earshot, Ferguson can only have left him on the field till the end in the vain hope that his 'match winner' would spark into life, but it was never going to be.

The fact that Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic, normally three of Ferguson's most consistent performers, also fluffed their lines meant that what looked set to be a routine day at the office for the league leaders rapidly developed into a game that may just have decided the destiny of the title.

In the end, United got the three points all observers expected them to collect, but the manner of the triumph made it all the more crucial. Ferguson was the first to admit they didn't deserve to win a game they could easily have lost were it not for an inspired second half performance from keeper Edwin van der Sar.

However, this is what champions are made of and the sight of Ferguson bounding around the touchline embracing his staff suggested he believes the championship he craves so much may now be within his grasp. 'It's putting it mildly to say this was a smash and grab raid,' said the euphoric United manager. 'You get games that come along where you are flat and you have to give credit to Fulham because they turned this into a cup tie.

'Once they scored, it was a big uphill struggle and we just have to thank the two goal scorers for digging us out of a hole. When you have so many goal scorers in your side, you are always hoping someone will come up and get you the points and it happened for us right at the end.

'It's significant to win after a poor performance like that, particularly scoring late on. This was the most difficult game we've had all season, but Ronaldo showed so much courage throughout the game and deserved to get the winner.'

Fulham boss Chris Coleman was left fuming over an injury time penalty claim that was turned down by referee Peter Walton and he had every right to wonder how his side trudged off as losers in a game they dominated for long periods.

Showing more commitment than their illustrious opponents and getting to the loose balls first, they found a way past the former Fulham keeper Edwin van der Sar in the 16th minute. Even though Nemanja Vidic and Van der Sar were at fault for failing to deal with a ball through the centre of their defence, McBride still had so much to do as he picked up the loose ball an directed it through a crowded penalty area and into the unguarded goal, via the inside of the post.

It was all that Fulham deserved as the team who want to be kings seemed to believe they merely needed to turn up at Craven Cottage to collect the three points they needed to stretch their lead at the top still further, on a weekend when Chelsea are pre-occupied with Carling Cup commitments.

Going a goal down should have been the cue for Rooney and company to step up the pace, but with the hapless Carrick clearly still believing his team-mates were wearing white shirts as he passed to more Fulham players than anyone else on the field, United lacked the cohesion to make any impact.

They also appeared to be lacking leadership on the field and Ferguson's explanation for the shock omission of skipper Gary Neville provided more questions than answers. It may be that his on-pitch bust up with his manager in the contentious Lille game on Tuesday night was the real reason behind his dropping, but the Scot offered this version of events.

'I misread the team Fulham were going to pick,' he claimed. 'They score most of their goals from set-plays, so I felt it was a good idea to have Wes Brown in the side, but then they name their side and three of their biggest players are not playing. Still, you get these things wrong sometimes.'

Ryan Giggs' 29th minute equaliser came against the run of play as it was a rare foray forward for a United side who were then forced to soak up plenty of second half Fulham pressure. Van der Sar pulled off two fine saves from Simon Davies and a couple more besides.

As the game ambled towards a close, Rooney embarked on a last, desperate bid to make an impact and as his scuffed shot was blocked en-route to goal, his afternoon of despair appeared set to end with what could have been a disastrous result for United.

In the end, his misery was put on hold for another few days by a young man who has overtaken him in the ranks of the most gifted young player in the world game. If Ferguson was forced to pick between Ronaldo and Rooney, the two combatants from that infamous World Cup clash last summer, he simply couldn't select the Englishman ahead of his Portuguese wizard just now.

A Premiership winner's medal will look very nice on the lavish Rooney mantelpiece come May, but he will know that his contribution to any such triumph has been less than significant.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Edwin van der Sar
He may have been at fault for Fulham's first goal, but his second half saves kept his team in the hunt. The big Dutchman has been a great signing for Ferguson.

FOOD WATCH: The pies are Fulham are notoriously odd in taste, so this shrewd reporter opted out at half-time.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR VERDICT: If there was any doubt, his winning goal in this game ensures Cristiano Ronaldo should win the crown.

ROONEY RATING: A miserable 3 out of 10. He needs to do much, much better.

UNITED VERDICT: A combination of luck and brilliance is generally required to win Premiership titles. United showed they have both qualities in abundance at Craven Cottage and as long as they keep Ronaldo fit, the title is their's for the taking.

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