Manchester United 2 Fulham 0: United cruise but Ronaldo's double clouded by dive storm

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The Independent Football

Though it was billed as Rooney's Return, the script was just the same as it has been every time Cristiano Ronaldo plays these days goals for the young Portuguese and the lion's share of the workload on a night when Fulham did not come close to challenging the champions.

Yet Sir Alex Ferguson also found himself back on old ground last night, defending Ronaldo against accusations of diving, after the most controversial moment of a game which United would have won by a much wider margin were it not for the heroics of Antti Niemi in Fulham's goal.

The referee Rob Styles booked Ronaldo for simulating a dive on 78 minutes when, sent clean through by Louis Saha, he steered the ball to the left of the advancing Niemi and leapt clear of him before plunging to the floor despite no apparent touch from the goalkeeper's outstretched hands.

Ferguson, who was still raking up Gareth Southgate's claims that Ronaldo dived in his programme notes when Middlesbrough arrived at Old Trafford in October, accused Niemi of "conning" Styles. "The incident is a result of the perceived idea that Ronaldo dives," said Ferguson. "But there's no reason to dive. Why would he want to go down if he is going through for a hat- trick? It's so silly." There was a principle here, that Ferguson was at pains to stress: Ronaldo has matured from his diving days. "He is nothing like that now. He is a true, magnificent footballer and he is getting unfairly treated."

Ronaldo risked compounding matters with some ironic clapping as he was booked an offence which has seen Rooney dismissed before now but while maintaining after the game that Niemi had clipped him, he said that he was indifferent to the response of a referee who sent him off for a second offence of kicking a ball away at Villa Park in 2004. "He sent me off three years ago but I wasn't scared," Ronaldo said.

Ferguson had grounds for questioning the decision of a referee whose oversight of an apparent bundling over of Clint Dempsey by Wes Brown in the penalty area compounded matters. Evading Niemi would have been difficult for Ronaldo, though Ferguson's suggestions of a deliberate con seemed far fetched.

The controversy took the gloss off a night that, amid a glut of missed opportunities that frustrated the United manager, had belonged to Ronaldo. After scoring 23 goals last season, he has now netted 13 in 13 games this time around and is depositing an encouraging number with his head, as he did for his second goal last night.

Rooney, as so often is the case, struggled to reach par after his impatience to return to the side in lightning quick time. A shake of his head as he departed, to be replaced by Saha, said as much. There were glimpses of the chemistry with Carlos Tevez, though, which was delivering goals for fun before Rooney's head-tennis inspired injury intervened three and a half weeks ago.

United have got into the habit of treating the Fulham goal like a pinball machine at Old Trafford they had scored nine in the last two encounters here before last night and Tevez alone could have out them 3-0 up inside eight minutes. Anderson's teasing cross was the kind that 18-year-old Elliot Omozusi, starting his third match, probably has nightmares about and it looped over his head towards Tevez, whose desperate dive was not quite enough. The Argentinian had a clear sight at goal two minutes later, when Brown's short, low cross from the same direction found him but Niemi blocked well. So Ronaldo's opener on 10 minutes was inevitable. Simon Davies miscued horribly as he attempted to head clear a corner, delivering the ball back in towards Nemanja Vidic whose header set up Ronaldo. The Portuguese just can't miss at the moment and he collected his seventh in his last five games with a crisp right-foot volley into the top right-hand corner.

Fulham simply do not travel their last away win was in September 2006 and you sensed the kind of capitulation which had them 4-1 down at half-time in this fixture last season. But Davies and Danny Murphy led something of a revival. Murphy collected a lay-off from Shefki Kuqi on the half hour and fired in a sharp effort which Edwin van der Sar pushed around the post. Davies later cut a pass out right for Dempsey whose cross found Kuqi free of Brown and with time to compose an accurate header. He missed badly.

Otherwise, this match was becoming a training match for a United side who appeared in competition to show their party tricks. It was in the 57th minute that Ronaldo finally added goal number two, heading John O'Shea's cross down beyond Niemi with expert precision. Two attempts, two goals, his statistics read at that stage

The last five minutes provided more chances. Ryan Giggs sent Ronaldo through but he could not finish; Giggs volleyed cleanly himself after a Michael Carrick chip but Niemi saved; and Saha was also clean through two minutes from time but Niemi saved again.

Ronaldo's pursuit of a first hat-trick he has scored twice 11 times for United but never gone further is enough to have Derby, next up at Old Trafford on Saturday, shuddering. And with the Portuguese in this form, Liverpool could badly do with Daniel Agger back in defence when United finally meet some genuine opposition on 16 December.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand (Carrick, 74), Vidic, Evra (O'Shea, h-t); Ronaldo, Anderson, Hargreaves, Giggs; Rooney (Saha, 70), Tevez. Substitutes not used: Fletcher, Kuszczak

Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Hughes, Stefanovic, Konchesky; Davies, Davis, Murphy, Dempsey (Healy, 64); Kuqi, Bouazza. Substitutes not used: Bocanegra, Seoul, Warner, Baird

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

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