It is becoming fashionable to leave Old Trafford. David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron said goodbye in the summer, Paddy Harverson, their communi- cations director, is to join the Royal Family's public relations team, and yesterday Manchester United's home record went west too.
It is 13 months since United have been beaten in the Premiership at Old Trafford but if the scoreline provoked surprise elsewhere there were 67,727 souls in the Theatre of Dreams to testify this was no Fulham fluke. The Londoners were as good as United were bad and fully merited only their second win in 24 attempts at Old Trafford, scoring goals through Lee Clark, Steed Malbranque and Junichi Inamoto. By the end their supporters were chanting "we want four", and, although done tongue-in-cheek, another goal or two would not have flattered their team.
"It could have been six, " admitted Sir Alex Ferguson, who had to watch from the stands because he is serving a two-match suspension. "It was a lazy performance, we were unrecognisable. Maybe the tensions and emotions of Wednesday played a part but Fulham thoroughly deserved the result." On reflection Ferguson may wonder whether he, too, had played a part. In an attempt to keep his players fresh he rested Roy Keane, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes from the team who defeated Rangers in the Champions' League on Wednesday and was rewarded with a United performance that only goalkeeper Tim Howard will remember with any warmth.
From the fourth minute it looked like a tinkering too far when Fulham took the lead. Mikaël Silvestre's carelessness surrendered possession close to his area and Malbranque sped past him down the right before crossing to the near post where Clark forced the ball in. A fluke? Hardly. Fulham may have feared they had scored too early but they almost compounded the error 14 minutes later as their crisp passing and eager running continued to embarrass the champions. Moritz Volz again exposed United's left flank and then invited his colleagues to shoot with a pass along the 18-yard line. Mark Pembridge accepted, crashing his shot against the bar.
Add Louis Saha's turn and shot that Howard blocked and a free-kick from Malbranque that the United goalkeeper dived to his left to stop, and it amounted to a miserable half hour for Ferguson's team, whose first real effort did not come until the 36th minute when Ryan Giggs flashed a shot across the goal.
However, with the first half in injury time, United struck to make the score wholly misleading. Giggs flicked a ball through and Forlan, who is more miss than hit usually, showed admirable composure to fire across Edwin van der Sar into the far corner. Forlan squandered an opportunity just after the break, shooting wastefully wide when he had colleagues to pass to, but that marked the high-water mark for United. Sloppiness spread like an epidemic through the red shirts and it was not a surprise when Rio Ferdinand failed to reach Luis Boa Morte's cross from the left after 66 minutes. The ball ricocheted off Saha and Nicky Butt and squirted to Malbranque who improvised to toe-poke his shot just inside the post.
You could scarcely begrudge Fulham's lead and they reinforced it 12 minutes from time when United's defence, who had been dozing most of the afternoon, went to sleep completely. Malbranque's long pass found Inamoto and as Quinton Fortune tried desperately to catch him up, the Japanese midfielder shot first time past Howard.
For Fortune, it summed up his and his team's afternoon. United introduced the South African at the interval without informing the officials and he was booked as soon as the referee, Mike Riley, noticed. Maybe the Old Trafford employee who should have supervised Rio Ferdinand's drugs test is now in charge of substitutions.
Manchester United 1
Clark 3, Malbranque 66, Inamoto 79
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 67,727
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