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Feb 18, 2009

United take full control

Another game, another milestone. Edwin van der Sar recorded a 14th successive clean sheet to extend his impeccable record over the last three months. It is now 1,302 minutes of top-flight football without conceding. By overhauling the former Atletico Madrid player Abel Resino, he moved into second place among goalkeepers in European leagues. Now only the Belgian Dany Verlinden, rescued from obscurity by the statisticians in the last few days, outranks him, and possibly only for another 89 minutes.

Manchester United, by winning a ninth successive Premier League match in superlative style, are amassing formidable facts, but the goalkeeper is commanding the attention. Forget the Untouchables, this was another episode of the Unbreachables. So, given the sense of achievement, it seems impolite to suggest that van der Sar actually hasn't had much to do. He was beaten twice by his former club, Fulham, but on both occasions Bobby Zamora, perhaps the league's least productive striker, narrowly missed the far post. Some of the Dutchman's peers will be occupied more in four games than van der Sar has been in 14.

His has been a feat of concentration, with isolated stops, such as those to thwart Aston Villa's Ashley Young and Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, separated by long periods of profitable inactivity. As Fulham became the fourth of those 14 teams to fail to register a shot on target, the ledger still stands at 24 saves. Admirable, yes. Exceptional, no.

It is a reason why van der Sar, unlike Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, is unlikely to garner many votes for the various Footballer of the Year awards. He brings calm and assurance, but there are occasions when little else is required. There is evidence to support Peter Schmeichel's theory that United possess the world's best defence and they are aided by the timidity of many visitors to Old Trafford.

Normally a frugal back four is a product of continuity. Not Manchester United's. The personnel are altered, the clean sheets remain. Defiance is a constant, but backs-to-the-wall displays are not necessary. Vidic, the sole ever-present during the 14 games, retains his habit of winning vital headers, but the two full-backs were able to concentrate on attack for long periods.

Fulham had to focus on defence. They were not the first to attempt a damage limitation exercise, though theirs was a particularly unsuccessful effort. Zamora, scorer of a solitary goal this season, was a lone striker ahead of a five-man midfield that included a defender, Chris Baird. United still overwhelmed them.

Sir Alex Ferguson felt his side built from the back. Their record is a source of pride and he said: "It's really amazing. That's down to the performance of Vidic and [Rio] Ferdinand tonight. They were really solid and determined and they were up against a bit of a handful in Zamora, a strong, powerful player who is quick. They had a job to do."

United's was easier after 12 minutes, courtesy of "a fabulous hit", in Ferguson's words, from Paul Scholes and some lax marking from Fulham. It is a move so old that the midfielder scored in similar fashion against Bradford in the last millennium. Perhaps it was because Scholes hadn't managed a league goal for 18 months, but he was left unchecked when Carrick took a corner. Nevertheless the subsequent 20-yard volley was beautifully struck. Mark Schwarzer parried it, only for the ball to spin back over the line.

Schwarzer's misfortune continued with United's second goal. Following a delicious chip from Scholes, a stretching John O'Shea centred. The Australian almost cut it out; instead Dimitar Berbatov had a tap-in at the far post.

Thereafter, the 1-0 specialists were reminded of their penchant for demolition jobs, roundheads rediscovering the joys of being cavalier. It is no exaggeration to say they could have won by six goals. Carlos Tevez and Berbatov had efforts disallowed while the Bulgarian, thwarted by a goal-line clearance from Aaron Hughes, could have departed with the match ball.

Instead, he exited so Wayne Rooney could return after seven matches on the sidelines. It soon ranked as a successful comeback, the substitute arriving at speed to touch in Ji-sung Park's cross. "It was his first touch," added Ferguson. "It was a nice goal. He's come in late. I've seen him do it many times. I'm so pleased he's off the mark now, he's back and I hope he stays back."

"We weren't able to get close to them," admitted Roy Hodgson. "They are a very, very good team. They play with great composure, their passing and movement was very good and they have got the individuals who can fashion goal chances and shots from nothing at all."

They also had one who had nothing to save at all. The match concluded with a chorus of "Edwin van der Sar" from the Stretford End. This was a game where the record-breaker was, by default, United's least impressive performer. While unemployment rises around the world, here was another man at a loose end.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes - A wonderful performance. Scholes has been a stranger to goals in the latter stages of his career, but a return to the scoresheet seemed to buoy him. An exhibition of terrific distribution followed, the simple and the spectacular passes all executed with excellence. "Fantastic, some of his switches of play tonight were absolutely magnificent," said his manager.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was United close to their coruscating best. With Rooney's return, Ferguson had so many options that Giggs was not even named among the substitutes. On this form, they are cruising towards the title.

FULHAM VERDICT: Hodgson's team have held Chelsea at home and taken points at Liverpool and Aston Villa, but never threatened to do likewise at Old Trafford. The charitable interpretation is that the injuries to Andrew Johnson and Paul Konchesky proved too great a disruption to a previously settled side. The reality, though, is that they were thrashed.

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