Sir Alex Ferguson must have been seething. It was bad enough having to start his two-match touchline ban in the stand at Old Trafford as his Manchester United side took on Fulham but then he had his weekend ruined by Steed Malbranque, who inspired the London club to an astounding 3-1 victory.
Ferguson could be forgiven if he was heartily sick of Frenchmen. As if he does not have enough trouble coping with the exploits of his rival managers from across the Channel, Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier, yesterday Malbranque produced a five-star performance. He ran the match after half-time as Fulham secured their first victory over United for 39 years. Having restored Fulham's lead in the 66th minute, the magical Malbranque then set up the clinching goal 11 minutes from time with a superb through ball to Junichi Inamoto.
Ferguson's team selection backfired. Against a side who bookmakers rated an 11-1 shot to win, the Scot changed the eleven that had won at Rangers in the Champions' League on Wednesday. He left out Roy Keane and Phil Neville and recalled Nicky Butt, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Forlan. Paul Scholes and Quinton Fortune sat on the bench in reserve. Fulham quickly exposed the error of Ferguson's ways, Lee Clark giving them the lead after three minutes. Forlan, at least, rewarded his manager's judgement with an equaliser against the run of play, but by the time Scholes went on the match was under Malbranque's command. Ferguson thought the "tension and emotion" of Wednesday played a part. "We made a terrible start, and Fulham fully deserved to win."
Fulham have made a mockery of predictions that they would struggle against relegation under Chris Coleman, who said: "Every one of my players was different class today, and I can't pick anyone out - they were all brilliant." This morning they lie fifth, only four points behind United.
Fulham may not have been allowed to move in with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but much more of this and, as Coleman hinted, they will be thinking they can muscle in on a championship challenge with their west London neighbours. Chelsea struggled to subdue Manchester City at home, just protecting Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's first-half goal to win 1-0 and go top on goal difference above Arsenal, who play at Charlton today.
Events at Old Trafford took attention away from what would otherwise have been the match of the day at Molineux between two apparent contestants for the wooden spoon. The bottom club Leicester travelled across to the west Midlands to play Wolverhampton with only three away League goals this season. By half-time they had doubled that tally, Les Ferdinand scoring twice. But Wolves, with only three goals in total, produced a sensational comeback. Level after 68 minutes, in part due to Colin Cameron's two strikes, they won 4-3 with an Henri Camara goal after 84 minutes. One for the album, indeed.
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