United took three points to go back to the top of the table but were made to fight all the way by obdurate Fulham, who defended manfully throughout and ensured a nervous night at Old Trafford.
Wayne Rooney’s first-half strike proved just about enough but Sir Alex’s side were unable to add to the goal and the atmosphere grew increasingly tense in the closing stages with Danny Murphy, so often the scourge of United in the past, perhaps unlucky not to earn a penalty after going down inside the area towards the end.
Although the Reds dominated the early exchanges, the first genuine effort did not arrive until the 11th minute when Ryan Giggs met a Rafael cross with a goalbound header but Mark Schwarzer caught it impressively. With Giggs being asked to play the Paul Scholes role in his fellow veteran’s absence, his probing passes were regularly dealt with by the Cottagers’ defence.
Gradually, Fulham came more into the game and Moussa Dembele’s menacing dribble led to him dragging a shot wide before Clint Dempsey ran at Jonny Evans but shot too close to David De Gea. The Londoners continued to put their bodies on the line at the other end, making a series of fine blocks, and, with the team growing in confidence, Dempsey forced a spectacular diving catch out of De Gea.
Predictably, the Reds responded to the wake-up call through Antonio Valencia but his shot was blocked by John Arne Riise after a one-two with Danny Welbeck. The breakthrough was almost provided by an unlikely source when Patrice Evra’s ambitious overhead kick dropped wide and fellow full-back Rafael also had a decent chance but shot tamely at Schwarzer with his left foot.
After a penalty shout for handball against Stephen Kelly was turned down by referee Michael Oliver, the deadlock was broken three minutes before the interval. Ashley Young’s dangerous cross went over Brede Hangeland’s head and under Riise’s studs. Evans pounced to show great awareness to tee up Rooney and the striker gleefully smashed home, immediately acknowledging the Northern Irishman’s part in the goal.
Relaxed, the Reds started the second half in complete control but were unable to find another way past Schwarzer. Giggs’ excellent pass released Valencia but the Australian keeper saved well, with Riise getting to the rebound first to stab it behind to safety.
Aaron Hughes survived a nervous moment when dealing unconvincingly with a Rafael centre before a trademark curler from Young brought the best out of Schwarzer, who dived to parry. Damien Duff made a vital block as Fulham continued to smother many of the United attacks and Sir Alex decided to shake things up in attack by replacing Welbeck with Javier Hernandez.
The champions kept knocking on the door but Giggs dragged a left-foot attempt well wide and Schwarzer made a superb double stop to keep out Young following a cross from Valencia. When the ball came out to Giggs, Hangeland made yet another vital intervention to keep the visitors within touching distance.
With Rio Ferdinand and matchwinner Rooney substituted as the clock ticked down, the capital club were able to ensure it was nervous finale as Old Trafford grew ever more tense. And there was an almighty scare when substitute Murphy went down under Michael Carrick’s challenge towards the end of normal time but Oliver waved ‘play on’ instead of pointing to the spot. Fittingly, Evans capped an inspirational individual performance by heading away Riise’s long throw-in to provide the last act of a game that, while draining, could prove vital in the final reckoning.
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