The frailties that cost them in the seven-goal thriller against Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday, almost came back to haunt United but this time the attack bailed them out. Cristiano Ronaldo (twice), Park Ji-sung and Louis Saha kept them just ahead of Fulham, who had not won away in the Premiership this season but came closer than the scoreline suggested.
Fulham scored through Brian McBride and Heidar Helguson, had the better of the second half and were not beaten until Ronaldo's second goal four minutes from the end,
Their slight sense of injustice was compounded by United's third goal for which Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a yard offside in the build-up. Fulham, were furious and their manager Chris Coleman was sent off by Martin Atkinson after angrily confronting the linesman.
"It was an horrendous decision," said Coleman and Ferguson was relieved to win after some desperate defending, with Patrice Evra particularly shaky. "I think the players realised how important it was for them to get a result," Ferguson said. "I'm proud of them for digging in."
He might have been stressing the positive at the end, butat half-time both managers must have been incredulous. Imagine a practice game where teams are told to attack and forget about defending and you will have an idea of what the first 45 minutes were like.
The goal-glut began after six minutes when Gary Neville's cross was blocked by Wayne Bridge, but his second found Park, whose chip deflected off Carlos Bocanegra and sent Antti Niemi the wrong way for his first goal n the Premiership. And United were two up within 14 minutes through Ronaldo. He had earlier made a real pig's ear of a free-kick that even the home supporters could not suppress giggling about, but given a second chance, from 30 yards, the Portuguese winger curled a shot exquisitely into the top corner. Maybe Niemi still had tears in his eyes from the first effort, for he did not move.
Neither did Edwin van der Sar when McBride thumped a header past him from Liam Rosenior's cross eight minutes later, and you feared the operator of the scoreboard might end up in a similarly statuesque state - this time through over-work - when United restored their two-goal lead within a minute. This time it was the Fulham defenders who were still, but to be fair to them, Van Nistelrooy was clearly offside so they had every reason to grumble when the Dutchman's shot rebounded to Saha, who scored from two yards.
Fulham, whose wit and energy made you wonder why their away record is so bad, hit back again when Bridge crossed from the left after 37 minutes for Helguson to strike with another towering header, and they almost equalised just after half-time when Steed Malbranque's clever run bewildered United.
The crowd's demands for Wayne Rooney were finally satisfied after 69 minutes, but it was Van Nistelrooy who came to their rescue, twisting wonderfully to fire in an 86th minute shot. Niemi saved it, but Ronaldo scored via a post on the rebound.
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- Blackburn Rovers
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Louis Saha
- Park Ji-Sung
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy