Rooney ensures patience pays for clinical United

Manchester United 1 (Rooney 42) Fulham 0

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The Independent Online

It has been a season of sufferable lows for Manchester United but this march towards the end is suddenly beginning to take on an irresistable air.

No-one would have foreseen this denouement when Manchester City so brutally humbled them in October. But the gap between United and City extended to three points for the first time last night and with four games against bottom-six sides to follow, a 20th title suddenly seems more of an expectation than a hope for Sir Alex Ferguson.

United were laboured and they were spared a strong penalty call for the Fulham substitute Danny Murphy at the end. City, for whom Arsenal and Newcastle loom on the horizon, will need to be at their best to prevent this deficit growing before the sides meet in east Manchester on 30 April.

Fulham's rare first-half sorties into the United half actually looked more likely to yield something, given the greater space they found there. Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé were sharp, Fulham wise to get them into possession, and the American brought several smart saves from David de Gea.

But just as groans of frustration began to issue around the stadium and half-time approached, United smashed though the barricade. Brede Hangeland missed Ashley Young's cross on the left and Jonny Evans showed presence of mind to seek out Wayne Rooney for the striker's 11th goal in nine games.

In that unassuming way of his, Antonio Valencia has been staking his claim to be his club's player of the season, and he remained the prime threat in a 15-minute period at the start of the second half in which United grabbed the game and sought to drive home the advantage. Young worked some space on the opposite flank and curled an effort which Mark Schwarzer tipped away.

Dembélé impressed and retained spirit to make a 15-yard run through the United midfield which Evans stopped. Ferguson was nervous enough to bring on Paul Scholes for Rooney, 12 minutes from time. There were also injury anxieties, as Rio Ferdinand left the field gingerly to be replaced by Chris Smalling and De Gea fell heavily on his hand after a punch clear.

Then came that major late let-off in the 88th minute, when Murphy ran into the United area and Michael Carrick's left foot connected with the Fulham midfielder. Ferguson blew his cheeks out as he left the field of play. The table and the fixture lists are all that count. Both look good for United.