UNITED EVENTUALLY COMFORTABLE WINNERS AGAINST RESILIENT COTTAGERS
By Dan Salisbury-Jones.
The Champions started this afternoon in 3rd place after Chelsea’s 4-1 win over West Ham and Nicklas Bentner’s late winner for Arsenal at the KC Stadium.
There were no surprises in United’s line up as Berbatov and Rooney started up top in a 4-4-2 formation. Danny Murphy returned for Fulham and Clint Dempsey also managed to make it into their starting 11.
The game kicked off at 1:30 on a bright sunny afternoon in Manchester, the first half however could easily have been a Serie A fixture with the pace suited more to both these sides Italian counterparts in midweek.
The first effort on goal came from the visitors as Clint Dempsey had a tame shot from outside the area which was very easy for Edwin Van Der Sar to deal with in front of the Stretford End.
In a rather tentative first 10 minutes Fulham were more than a match for United and seeing much of the ball, it would set the tone for how much the reds would have grind out opportunities in the first half.
As the minutes ticked over to double figures Dimitar Berbatov threaded a lovely ball through to Fletcher who burst into the right hand side of the penalty area, his square ball though couldn’t be converted by Wayne Rooney under immense pressure and the ball was eventually pounced on by Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal.
Clint Dempsey then had another effort on United’s goal when Gary Neville lost out to Simon Davies who teed up the American to strike just over the bar from 30 yards.
That was followed in the 15th minute by a strike from Zoltan Gera which deflected off Patrice Evra for a corner. Van Der Sar punched the corner clear but only as far as Danny Murphy who set to shoot from 20 yards, Michael Carrick closed the shot down well though on his return after European suspension in midweek.
From that moment, United began to exert their own pressure without creating too many clear cut opportunities, Rooney claimed for a penalty after he was wrestled to the ground trying to latch on to a Gary Neville cross in the 22nd minute.
2 minutes later came the first clear cut chance for United when Berbatov played in Nani on the left hand side and continued his run into the box, Nani picked his teammate out with an aerial ball to the Bulgarian’s head but Berbatov sent it over the bar when he should have done better.
Mark Schwarzer’s hands were tested in the 29th minute as Rooney dug out a shot without any back lift from the edge of the area which the Australian had to stop with a fine diving save to his right hand side.
Nani had looked lively in the opening exchanges but showed on 31 minutes a moment that his critics would highlight as evidence against him, as he was played in down the left with a great ball from Michael Carrick, only for the Portuguese winger to keep hold of the ball for far too long and eventually lose it, when Rooney and Berbatov where in fantastic positions.
The ex Sporting Lisbon man made up for that error with a decent cross to Wayne Rooney who headed straight at the Fulham keeper, it was a difficult chance though even for the prolific England striker.
A frustrated Wayne Rooney had his second claim for a penalty turned down after 35 minutes when his shot was deflected on to the arm of Steven Kelly. The Referee Mike Jones quite rightly waved away claims to what would have been a very harsh penalty, as Kelly had his back to the ball.
Bobby Zamora had his first sniff of the afternoon 2 minutes later when Danny Murphy dinked a beautiful ball over the top of United’s defence for the front man to latch on to, only for him to get too much on his attempted lob volley, which ended up in the Stretford End.
A quiet Antonio Valencia was booked after 42 minutes when he clipped the heels of Clint Dempsey.
The rest of the first half was played out at a similar pace to what had preceded it, that slow Italianesque football as mentioned earlier.
The visitors made one change at half time when one time United target Damien Duff entered the fray at the expense of Welshman Simon Davies.
The game burst into life within a minute of the restart with Rooney passing the ball to Nani on the left hand side, whose low cross was met in a seemingly crowded box by Wayne Rooney somehow in space right in the middle of the penalty area, the red hot striker made no mistake in opening the scoring, starting and finishing the move.
This seemed to relax Old Trafford, which was beginning to become a little concerned at the lack of urgency shown in the first half, the tempo was also upped.
After 54 minutes Gary Neville’s cross was flicked on by a Fulham head only for Nani to pick it up at the far hand side of the area, he was in a great position to score but strangely his effort was looped and short allowing Wayne Rooney to pick up the pieces, by this time though Fulham had plenty of bodies between the ball and their goal.
Danny Murphy had been reminded all afternoon of his history in another North West city, as whenever he touched the ball he received a chorus of boos from the United faithful. He had also made a couple of poor tackles which he could have easily been booked for, it was his next though on Michael Carrick in the 56th minute which eventually drew Mike Jones into producing a card.
On 65 minutes Brede Hangeland was replaced by Jonathon Greening, the big Norwegian complaining of sore ribs resulting from a coming together with Valencia in the first half.
United were camped in Fulham territory for much of the second period and the next chance came with a Valencia corner which Ferdinand managed to wrap his foot around, showing great technique to steer the ball just over the top left hand corner of Schwarzer’s goal.
Joining fellow ex red Jonathon Greening on the pitch for Fulham would be Eric Nevland who replaced Clint Dempsey who had put in an impressive 70 minutes for the visitors.
Ji-Sung Park had done a fantastic job in the Champions League against Milan on Wednesday night and he replaced Valencia, who had put in a rather uneventful performance this afternoon.
In the 73rd minute there was almost a carbon copy of United’s opener against Milan with Gary Neville crossing to the head of Wayne Rooney but this time his new found aerial prowess was not with him and the ball came off his shoulder, squandering the chance.
The second half was passing by much quicker than the first without much incident but certainly with an increase in tempo, United were also dominant, although just getting the one goal meant Fulham were always in with a chance.
A chance was to come for Fulham when a mistake from Nemanja Vidic allowed Bobby Zamora to breach the last line of defence. The Serbian managed to make a mends for his mistake though and recover superbly well to block Zamora’s shot, the Fulham man will think he should have done better.
After that minor blip in concentration for the Champions they went back on the attack. On 78 minutes, Berbatov passed the ball to Ji-Sung Park and the Korean ran at the right back forcing him backwards, before playing a beautiful ball with the outside of his right boot towards the head of Dimitar Berbatov, his quick reaction header flashed just wide of the far post.
Most of Old Trafford thought the job was all but done for United when in the 82nd minute, Darren Fletcher bundled his way into the box, his shot was met though by the strong right hand of Mark Schwarzer who turned it round the post with a truly great stop.
However, the Stretford End didn’t have to wait much longer to see that illusive second goal, Dimitar Berbatov had been lively all afternoon and he won a ball out on the right wing, using a terrific turn of pace to get away from the Fulham defenders before pulling the ball back for Wayne Rooney to do the easy part and finish low across to the bottom left hand corner of Schwarzer’s goal.
With the game all but won, Gary Neville once again received a rapturous round of applause as he exited to be replaced by Fabio. It has to be said that the Captain has seen something of a renaissance of late, continuing that form this afternoon.
United’s two front-men are also starting to show some of the telepathic credentials of the likes of Yorke and Cole before them, and they were both involved again in United’s third. On 88 minutes, Wayne Rooney played a stunning 40 yard ball over to Ji-Sung Park waiting on the right wing, his cross was then met at the front post by the head of Dimitar Berbatov who left Mark Schwarzer rooted to the spot as his header hit the back of the net.
That was to be the last meaningful action of the game and a hard fought victory for United. A difficult first half where United created little more than half chances was followed by a much more relaxed second, thanks in no small part to Wayne Rooney’s opener, it stayed 1-0 for too long for United’s liking but Fulham, for all their determination, looked like a side that don’t travel well and looked bereft of the confidence to get back into the game.
So, it was smiles all round Old Trafford come full time of their 100 year anniversary game in the stadium, the red’s are back on top of the pile once again and looking strong. Revenge of sorts was dished out to Fulham today and Sir Alex will be hoping for a similar reaction from his side, when fierce rivals Liverpool make the trip up the M62 next Sunday in a mouthwatering fixture.
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