Whether you call it the wow factor, flair or fantasy, Sir Alex Ferguson's current side arguably have a deficit in the quality Eric Cantona or Cristiano Ronaldo lent to previous vintages. Yet, even if there is a relative lack of style, Mark Hughes would not bet against his old manager guiding Manchester United to a repeat of their 1999 treble.
The Fulham manager looked on as the most exotic talent in Ferguson's squad, Nani, set up the goals by Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia which earned the leaders victory. Later, contemplating a five-day period in which his former club engage in cup combat with two of his other ex-employers, Chelsea and Manchester City, Hughes contended that United's know-how compensates for any shortage of swagger. It also makes them favourites, he suggested, not only for a 19th championship but also for the FA Cup, while a place in the last four of the Champions League also beckons.
At Wembley next Saturday, United face City in an FA Cup semi-final derby, when Wayne Rooney, their match-winner in west London, will complete a two-match domestic suspension. In the second leg of their European quarter-final, at Old Trafford tomorrow, United lead Chelsea 1-0.
"I thought United were excellent at Stamford Bridge," Hughes said. "They contained Chelsea, looked comfortable, were asking questions of them and got a great goal. They saw the game out without any real pressure. You sense a real determination to win every game between now and the end of the season. When United teams have that mindset it's difficult to overcome them."
Roberto Mancini, the City manager, has claimed he is "disappointed" that Rooney will be missing from the Mancunian collision next weekend. Hughes, his predecessor, is no longer bound by diplomacy. "Obviously it's a bonus [for City] that Rooney is not involved but you saw here that they have people of such quality that can come in and affect the outcome of any game, regardless of the opposition."
Nani, astonishingly absent from the nominations for the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year, and Berbatov, the Premier League's top scorer, proved the latter point during a sparkling first-half period that produced both goals. Fulham started brightly, dipped badly and then dominated possession in the second half. However, it amounted to nothing because they were bereft of penetration.
Hughes had a theory about how to counter Ferguson's side, but as well as looking powder-puff up front, Fulham did not possess the tackling power to put it into practice. "I think the one thing when you go up against United is that you do get a foothold [on the game] and if you have something you can protect, you can make it more difficult for them," said the Welshman. "United are an attacking outfit and they will commit players and sometimes you can catch them going the other way, but it's a big ask for any team to do that."
City have faced United in a semi-final – of the Carling Cup – since Hughes gave way to Mancini at Eastlands. A last-gasp goal by Rooney took United through and subsequent derbies, resulting in two United wins and one draw, have prompted some to conclude City remain "scarred" by the Carling Cup experience. "Yes, possibly," Hughes said. "They're still a team that is forming, so they need to make the next step and they'll look to try to do that against United. But I wouldn't back against United these days."
Scorers: Manchester United Berbatov 12, Valencia 32.
Subs: Manchester United Owen (Valencia, 73), Fabio (Anderson, 77), Carrick (Nani, 87).
Fulham Gudjohnsen 7 (Dembele, 55), Gera 5 (Etuhu, 67), Greening (Murhpy, 82).
Man of the match Nani.
Match rating 5/10.
Possession Man United 54% Fulham 46%.
Attempts on target Man United 12 Fulham 5.
Referee M Jones (Cheshire).