The United teamsheet delivered to Roy Hodgson contained no Rooney, no Ronaldo, no Giggs, no Vidic and no Carrick. No matter. Fulham still had no chance. If their manager received any kind of lift from the absentees, it was probably quickly deflated by the chill realisation that Sir Alex Ferguson was confident he would win in any case. He was right and the ease of the victory was discomforting in an apparently competitive league.
This was the first time in four months United had gone into a game without either of Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo – since losing away to Bolton – and they finally proved they can win without them. But they were playing Fulham, who are such a powder-puff prospect that they did not register a caution, never mind a goal. They stood and admired as Paul Scholes conducted matters.
It was a match that was not won at a canter but at a trot; it was not the kind of display to set the pulse racing. It was thoroughbreds against nags with the home side seemingly, inevitably, heading directly for the knacker's yard. Now cut six points adrift, relegation appears as much a formality as the 90 minutes were here for United.
They were first in everything – a first goal for the club for Owen Hargreaves, a first goal for Park Ji-Sung in just under a year. They almost finished the afternoon in first place in the Premier League too, but for Nicklas Bendtner's late intervention across London. Instead they cut Arsenal's lead to a single point and boosted their goal-difference advantage over the Gunners to seven.
Indeed, once Hargreaves had easily curled in his free-kick, after Brede Hangeland up-ended Carlos Tevez on the penalty area's edge, to give United the lead after 15 minutes, thoughts wandered as to what it all meant for the run-in. Arsenal also won by this scoreline at Craven Cottage but Hargreaves underlined a powerful, perhaps decisive, difference.
"It's quite remarkable," the midfielder said of Ferguson's riches to rotate. "And I think that the balance of our squad could probably be the difference in the end. I just think all our players are very different from each other, they all bring something different to the table. We can play in different formations, different players."
Variety and depth may well be the clinching factors in the title race, which is why Hargreaves echoed Ferguson's statement last week that neither should Chelsea be discounted. "You've got teams like Chelsea and Man United and the squads that we have and you look and Anderson and Rooney and Ronaldo are coming on," he said.
With tomorrow's Champions League tie against Lyon in mind, Ferguson was delighted with the day's work – although, predictably enough, he railed against the added time at the Emirates – and rubbed Fulham's noses in it by saying: "Look at the ones we've left out. They would get a game for any team. They are all top players." He pressed that point with his substitutions, and although none of Anderson, Rooney and Ronaldo had any great effect, some outrageous skill from the latter apart, their presence may have been enough to panic Simon Davies into turning John O'Shea's cross into his own net for the final goal. Before that Tevez, Nani and Scholes combined for the latter to chip the ball into the six-yard area and Park to head home.
Ferguson believes the race will go down to the wire at the top and that, now, is the best that Fulham can hope for at the bottom. It appears unlikely. Hodgson spoke, confusingly, about being outclassed but, then, not outclassed, and agreed that his team need five wins from their final 10 matches, a task which seems completely beyond them.
"We may need even more than that," he said. "But we won't envisage relegation until we can't make it [out] off our own bats. It will be interesting to see when we meet the teams around us who are in the same boat."
That accounts for half the run-in for Fulham, whose most impressive performer was the hard-working if limited Moritz Volz. Hodgson, despite raiding the Scandinavian market during the transfer window and having one of the league's biggest squads, has few options.
"I don't think there were any major changes I could have made that would have changed the result," he said.
Goals: Hargreaves (15) 0-1; Park (45) 0-2; Davies og (72) 0-3.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Niemi; Stalteri, Hughes, Hangeland; Konchesky; Volz (Kamara, 90), Murphy (Smertin, 65); Johnson (Nevland, 90), Bullard, Davies; McBride. Substitutes not used: Keller (gk), Bocanegra.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Brown, Ferdinand, Evra; Park, Hargreaves, Scholes, Nani (Anderson, 75); Tevez (Ronaldo, 69), Saha (Rooney, 69). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Pique.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral)
Man of the match: Scholes.
Attendance: 25,314.Reuse content