There are supposed to be no easy games in what many believe to be the world's strongest league, but this was just about as easy as it gets away from home. The bonus for Manchester United came with confirmation that Arsenal had only drawn again, allowing the champions to cut the gap at the top of the table to a single point, with every indication that they are suddenly the form horses. They were even able to rest several key players ahead of Tuesday's Champions' League tie at home to Lyon.
Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic played no part while Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were left in the dug-out until the last quarter of the game, then sent on in a demoralising double substitution that inspired a killer third goal. Effectively, however, Fulham had been beaten by United's second goal, a rare header by Ronaldo's deputy Park Ji-Sung, coming as it did just beforethe interval.
Owen Hargreaves, who had opened the scoring with his first goal for the club, kept things tight thereafter and Paul Scholes was outstanding just in front of him. Park, until his goal, was hardly as threatening as Ronaldo might have been down the right, but Nani impressed on the other flank and Louis Saha, returning after yet more injury problems, looked like a man with something to prove to his old club.
"In difficult conditions, we've done the job well," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "It was vital to use the squad, with a massive game on Tuesday, so it's been a good day for us. I don't think Fulham were a great threat in the box, though outside it they played some good football."
He was even able to laugh off the late equalising goal that kept Arsenal top, claiming: "A 95th-minute goal from their normal seven minutes of injury time! It's been a bit of a seesaw at the top. Chelsea are on our coat-tails and it looks as though it'll be a fantastic run-in."
Fulham can only hope to make it as close a finish at the bottom, though the signs are not good. Results elsewhere were much less favourable to them yesterday, opening a six-point gap ahead of them. Roy Hodgson, who succeeded Lawrie Sanchez at Christmas, was unable to bring in sufficient quality in the transfer window, and even winning half-a-dozen of their remaining 10 games would add up to only 37 points. Hodgson was offering a lesson in optimism when he said: "I don't think it's an impossible task. I'm sad but I'm not downhearted. I have to keep the faith."
The walk along the Thames to Craven Cottage remains the most delightful approach to any football ground, but Fulham supporters are understandably not making it with any great optimism these days. Hoping to see their team capitalise against a weakened United, they suffered instead as the visitors flooded forward from the start. Saha missed the first opportunity after only four minutes, when Scholes' quick free-kick sent him clear of a dozing Aaron Hughes. Carlos Tevez hit a stinging 30-yarder which Antti Niemi parried with some difficulty, and when the Argentinian won a soft free-kick just outside the penalty area, Hargreaves curled his shot perfectlyinto a corner of the net.
Danny Murphy and Jimmy Bullard kept trying to pass and play for Fulham, but with Eddie Johnson asked to track back as a wide midfielder there was little support for the only striker, Brian McBride. Murphy looked the likeliest source of a goal, forcing Edwin van der Sar into his two saves of the game with a swerving volley and a header from Bullard's corner. But a minute from the break Tevez squared the ball to Nani for a pass to Scholes, and a chipped cross was nodded in by Park.
The bitterly disappointed home support booed their team off at the half-time whistle, then, as if a little ashamed of themselves, offered greater encouragement at the start of the second period. For a while United were reduced to an occasional counterattack, prompting Ferguson into a double change designed to strike fear into any opponents as Rooney and Ronaldo stepped across the line to replace Saha and Tevez.
The effect was immediate. Ronaldo created problems with a cheeky cross from his back foot and in the next attack John O'Shea broke on to Park's pass and Simon Davies, chasing back, inadvertently toe-poked his cross past Niemi at the near post.
That knocked the stuffing out of Fulham. Not since September 1964 have they won at home to United, and a single win in 18 games against all-comers seriously threatens their seven-year stay at the highest level.Reuse content