Ferguson dismay as Diop strike slows United's drive towards top

Fulham 1 - Manchester United 1
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The Independent Online

Manchester United came into this game last night feeling that they could still chase Chelsea down at the top of the Premiership, but this draw left Sir Alex Ferguson's men ruing missed chances and staring at a nine-point gap between them and the league leaders. At this rate even third place is beyond them.

Manchester United came into this game last night feeling that they could still chase Chelsea down at the top of the Premiership, but this draw left Sir Alex Ferguson's men ruing missed chances and staring at a nine-point gap between them and the league leaders. At this rate even third place is beyond them.

But while the visitors were profligate ­ as well as unlucky ­ they came up against a Fulham side that was determined and, more importantly, efficient when they needed to be. All match long, the Londoners forced only one save from Roy Carroll as well as hitting the post, before Papa Bouba Diop finally beat the goalkeeper three minutes from time.

It was the scant return on such an overwhelming performance by his charges that left Ferguson so dismayed afterwards. He did not concede defeat in the title race but reminded his players that with Chelsea and Arsenal drawing on Sunday, this had been their opportunity to make up some ground.

He said: "Both our main rivals dropped points and I told the players that we just had to worry about our results. We haven't delivered although we controlled the game. But our form's good and we played some great football, but we've dropped two points. We should've killed them off in the first half."

Coleman was full of praise for Diop. "It was a fantastic strike by Papa that got us the point in the end," he said. "For a big guy he has got a great technique. But United look as though they are back on track for me. I thought they were outstanding in the first half. It was a more determined display from us in the second half. We dug in and stuck in there. We were delighted to take a point."

Diop had scored with a thunderous volley last month, which turned out to be nothing more than a consolation goal in a home defeat against Chelsea.

Here the Senegalese international struck with just as much venom shortly before the end but, with the title race in mind, also with much more meaning as well. Hit from 30 yards, his right-footed effort swerved and clipped the post on its way in, giving Carroll no chance of saving it.

If United were going to close the gap on Chelsea to a more manageable seven points, barring the absent, injured Ruud van Nistelrooy, this was as strong a team as Ferguson could pick. It was also a side that had felt its level of self-confidence rising, although this draw put an end to a run of four consecutive wins in the Premiership.

But it was a result that lent greater weight to Chris Coleman's belief that Chelsea will win the Premiership. He said: "I think this is Chelsea's year although Arsenal and United will push them. Alex is building another team and they were written off at the start of the season and that is incredible. They play the same system as Chelsea but it will be Chelsea's year."

By the time Alan Smith scored United's goal 12 minutes before the interval, they should already have been on their way to a comfortable victory. Twice within minutes United hit the post, first Edwin van der Sar's left-hand upright and then his other one.

Roy Keane was first up, letting fly from 20 yards when a clearance by Ian Pearce ran only as far as the Republic of Ireland international. Van der Sar was beaten only for the ball to rebound back into play.

Two minutes later and this time it was Wayne Rooney who had to rue his bad luck. Cristiano Ronaldo broke away down the right-hand flank and found the England international with room to beat the otherwise impressive debutant, Liam Rosenior. However, Rooney's shot suffered the same fate as Keane's.

In the ascendancy, United soon had the goal their quick interplay deserved. Ronaldo was again involved in the build-up as this time the Portuguese winger crossed for Smith. He lost the ball 10 yards out but chased it down and won it back from Rosenior before neatly beating Van der Sar at his near post.

Facing the prospect of a rout, Coleman reorganised his side into a more aggressive unit after the break while United contented themselves with containing their hosts. Diop did force Carroll into a fingertip save and Andy Cole turned Rio Ferdinand only to hit the post as well, but thanks to Diop, there was reason for celebration in more than one part of west London last night.

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