Football: Cole ends Fulham's fight

Manchester United 1 Fulham 0
FOOTBALL'S FAIRY-tales differ from those of infancy in that they rarely have a happy ending and Second Division Fulham's run in the FA Cup came to a soggy conclusion at Old Trafford yesterday when Manchester United did enough, and only that, to reach the quarter-finals.

The game was billed as Kevin Keegan versus Alex Ferguson but it materialised into United against their own inner complacency. They scored through Andy Cole, they sat back and admired what they had done and then they let the tie deteriorate into a scrappy affair that was a million miles from the fantasy land of the City Ground eight days previously.

It was a mistake-ridden afternoon that only threatened to conform to the exciting traditions of the competition when John Salako had the goal gaping and at his mercy midway through the second half. The winger tried to make sure, hit his shot tentatively and allowed Peter Schmeichel to save. At that moment the Cup's romance disappeared into the drizzly air.

"Cup football can be like that, very difficult," Ferguson said. "A lower division side come to Old Trafford and become inspired while for us it's another game. We never raised the tempo enough to wear them down.

"The credit goes to Fulham for the fight they put up. Salako's chance was a good one, the only real one they had. They had several skirmishes round our box but there was nothing clear-cut."

Keegan insisted that the difference between the teams was Dwight Yorke.

"I was proud of my players but if he had been in our team he might have swung it today," Keegan said. "If United win the European Cup this season, and I believe they can, he will be a very big reason."

The tops of the Pennines were wrapped in mist and the rain fell incessantly as the teams took to the field, offering the prospect of an uneven pitch that might play into the hands of the underdogs.

Fulham had removed South-ampton and Aston Villa en route to Old Trafford so they hardly arrived unheralded, and it was a mark of Ferguson's respect for the visitors that he fielded a team which, apart from the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, was close to his first choice.

The only surprise was the omission of Jesper Blomqvist, but as Cole, Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored eight goals between them against Nottingham Forest last weekend you could hardly describe the side as weakened. Short of width maybe, weakened definitely not.

Fulham, for whom Steve Finnan and Chris Coleman were outstanding, ought to have been intimidated, but if they were they cloaked it well because they had the better of the opening exchanges and might have opened the scoring when Salako flashed a header past Schmeichel's post after 15 minutes.

The impression even then, though, was that United could win the tie if they stirred themselves sufficiently and after 26 minutes they duly took the lead.

Nicky Butt arced a long pass to the left, then Solskjaer drew his man and crossed to the near post, where Cole's care with his volley was rewarded with a deflection off a Fulham thigh into the corner of the net.

Within seconds Fulham could have equalised but Dirk Lehmann was dispossessed with a splendid blocking tackle from Gary Neville, and United embarked on a 15-minute spell which was the only time when the gulf in the clubs' League positions was truly laid bare.

David Beckham fired a free-kick inches wide, Maik Taylor dived low to his right to stop Yorke's drive after Solskjaer's quicksilver flick with his heel and Jaap Stam was close with a header just before half-time and the second half threatened to be a procession.

Instead Fulham, who were deprived of the spine of their team with the absence of Simon Morgan, Paul Bracewell, Paul Peschisolido and Geoff Horsfield, stepped up their already prodigious efforts and forced United into several hairy moments in the their own area.

Steve Hayward nearly drove Schmeichel into his own net with a ferocious shot and Barry Hayles was close with a header but no chance was more gilt- edged than Salako's after 67 minutes. When Schmeichel dropped gratefully on to that, the tie was as good as won and United were on the way to a home quarter-final against Chelsea.

Indeed the closing moments were United's and Yorke was only denied a goal his play deserved when Taylor arced back to tip his shot over four minutes the end.

"It's a good draw, we're at home," Ferguson said. "At this stage of the competition you expect to meet strong opponents and we have a good record against Chelsea in cup competitions."

With Internazionale in the Champions' League, Chelsea in the Cup and Liverpool at Anfield in the Premiership in quick succession, March will define United's season. Fulham can return to the priority of securing promotion to the First Division, though first there is that even more important battle to keep Keegan.

Goal: Cole (26) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin (Greening. h-t); Beckham, P Neville, Butt; Solskjaer (Blomqvist, 68), Cole (Johnsen, 87), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Johnsen, May, Van der Gouw (gk).

Fulham (4-4-2): Taylor; Finnan, Symons, Coleman, Brevett; Hayward, Collins (Uhlenbeek, 86), Smith; Salako (Trollope, 78); Hayles, Lehmann (Betsy, 58). Substitutes not used: Brazier, Arendse (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Bookings: None

Man of the match: Finnan.

Attendance: 54,798.