Of all the wretchedness heaped upon David Moyes thus far this season, his players appear determined to find new and ever-more imaginative ways in which to invite humiliation upon their beleaguered manager. It is certainly the one thing the defending champions can be relied upon to do as they lurch from incompetence to triumph and back again.
Where to start with this latest carnival of the bizarre at Old Trafford? Having finally found a way past the proverbial parked bus of the Fulham side, leading until the 78th minute, United then conspired to throw victory away against the Premier League’s bottom-placed team. Moyes’ players seem to have forgotten what it was they used to do in this stadium, that quaint old business of winning matches against inferior opposition.
The stalwarts of the last great Sir Alex Ferguson team are looking like curious old relics in a museum chronicling fine historical deeds. Nemanja Vidic announced the end of his United career earlier in the week and looked like he had begun it this afternoon. It was Vidic who played a lead role in the sequence of errors that culminated in the substitute Darren Bent’s equaliser, four minutes into injury-time at the end of the game.
Yet, Vidic’s fading form is just one more fissure in the avalanche of collapsing standards at United. They battered at Fulham’s door for the majority of the game and then, just as it looked like they had saved it, that they were United again, that team that refuses to accept defeat, there was the familiar regression. In the directors’ box, Sir Alex Ferguson and his match-day pal Mick Hucknall look ever more like two men from an era passing into history.
Manchester United 2 Fulham 2: in pictures
Manchester United 2 Fulham 2: in pictures
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Fulham's Maarten Stekelenburg is called into early action in the Premier League game against Manchester United
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Manchester United's Juan Mata and Fulham's Kieran Richardson tussle for the ball
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Fulham take the lead as Steve Sidwell slides in to divert Lewis Holtby's superb ball past David de Gea
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Sidwell wheels away in delight after netting his sixth goal of the season
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Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic wins an aerial battle with Fulham defender Dan Burn
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Fulham's Johnny Heitinga dispossesses Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney with a lunging challenge
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Robin van Persie accepts the congratulations of his team-mates after netting Manchester United's equaliser
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And just seconds later Michael Carrick puts the hosts in front with a deflected strike from the edge of the area
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Carrick is mobbed by his team-mates as he puts Manchester United within touching distance of victory
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But a late header from Darren Bent gives Fulham a share of the points at a shell-shocked Old Trafford
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David de Gea, whose failure to hold Kieran Richardson's shot presented Bent with his chance, looks crestfallen
12/12 Manchester United 2 Fulham 2
And his manager David Moyes is equally dejected as Manchester United once again drop points at home
United expended a great deal in reeling in Fulham’s lead, given to them on 19 minutes by Steve Sidwell, that once they led the game 2-1, they assumed that the natural order of things had been restored. Except that the natural order no longer seems to exist as they once knew it at Old Trafford.
It was a strange - with hindsight, brave - team that Rene Meulensteen selected, picked like a rebuke to his older players. Scott Parker, Bent, Damien Duff and Brede Hangeland were all on the bench. Ryan Tunnicliffe, signed from United last month, was given his debut. Muamer Tankovic was given his first start in attack with Lewis Holtby behind him.
Moyes had a much better hand to play with Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney in the side and a strong bench including Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj and Javier Hernandez. What could possibly go wrong?
This being United, in 2014, you hardly have to answer that. A Fulham team that Gary Neville said in the Sky Sports coverage was not even set-up to win in the game – a little harsh given their aggression on the counter-attack – went in at half-time leading 1-0, having had the two best chances of the match by that point.
United dominated with 75 per cent possession, never more so than after Sidwell’s goal on 19 minutes, but time and again they resorted to the cross from the right from Rafael da Silva which was the one thing Fulham knew they could defend against. The away team rode their luck at times but, as has been the case with United this season, they blundered into the traps set for them.
Sidwell has been in good goalscoring form of late, although his goal was a gift from United’s midfield. Holtby, who was lively and determined, spotted the Englishman run away from Darren Fletcher and behind Vidic. The ball over the top was on the money and Sidwell guided it past David De Gea first time with his right foot.
Even before then, Fulham had been under the cosh with an excellent tackle on Van Persie by Sascha Riether in the first ten minutes when the United striker shaped to shoot. After the Sidwell goal the chances came flooding. A bad miss by Van Persie with his left foot at the back post, a Michael Carrick shot saved by Maarten Stekelenburg and the follow-up from Van Persie blocked by Sidwell. There were many more.
Sidwell was having one of those games when the positive attitude that has taken a player of his limitations a long way in his career, suddenly conveys him into uncharted territory. He was game’s outstanding player. There were others in the away side who felt that shot of confidence that has become familiar to away teams at Old Trafford this season – Dan Burn, William Kvist, Riether.
Fulham should have a second when Tankovic led a counter-attack in injury-time at the end of the first half which, beginning from a United corner, saw the home team outnumbered three to two. Tankovic picked the correct pass, Kieran Richardson coming past his left shoulder, and the former United man, with just De Gea to beat, missed the target.
In the second half, the challenge to United was to find a way past the 11 Fulham players between them and utter humiliation. It took them until the 78th minute, through three substitutions and a record number of crosses, the final count was 81, before the resistance of Meulensteen’s team was broken.
Before their equaliser, United seemed trapped in a cycle they could not break. They pumped cross after cross into the area where the 6ft 7in Burn and John Heitinga were dominant. Of those 81 crosses, United connected with only 18.
In the end, United’s first goal came from Mata’s shot from the right that was tidied up at the back post by Van Persie with his right foot. Januzaj had come on to play down the left. Rooney dropped into midfield. Hernandez joined Van Persie in attack. Finally they forced the door open.
Once Fulham had seen their dream shattered, so the second goal followed within 80 seconds. Parker, on as a substitute, shut down Carrick’s shot but the deflection off the Fulham midfielder took the ball past Stekelenburg who had been excellent. It had been a weak clearance from Richardson which fell to the Carrick on the edge of the box.
Moyes described the defending for the second Fulham goal as “diabolical”. Carrick felt he was fouled as Sidwell broke past him in injury-time. Having barely emerged from their own half, Fulham advanced with Sidwell. He found Richardson whose shot was parried by De Gea and Bent nodded in the loose ball. This time last season United were nine points clear at the top of the table, but last season must feel a very long time ago.
Manchester United (4-5-1): De Gea 6; Rafael 6 (Valencia, 69), Smalling 6, Vidic 5, Evra 6; Carrick 7, Fletcher 5 (Januzaj 6, 62); Mata 6, Rooney 7, Young 6 (Hernandez, 69); Van Persie 7.
Substitutes not used: Ferdinand, Giggs, Lindegaard (gk), Kagawa.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Stekelenburg 8; Riether 7, Burn 8, Heitinga 6, Riise 6; Kvist 6 (Cole, 80), Sidwell 8, Tunnicliffe 5 (Parker 5, 65), Richardson 6; Holtby 7; Tankovic 7 (Bent 6, ht).
Substitutes not used: Hangeland, Kacaniklic, Stockdale (gk), Duff.
Referee: K Friend
Man of the match: Sidwell