Ronaldo keeps 'miracle' alive

Manchester United 1 - Fulham 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It does not come naturally in many parts of the country, but there are reasons to feel sorry for Manchester United. They are playing like champions, they have enough points to be clear at the top of the Premiership in most seasons, yet they are so far behind Chelsea, the leaders are just blue miniatures on the horizon.

It does not come naturally in many parts of the country, but there are reasons to feel sorry for Manchester United. They are playing like champions, they have enough points to be clear at the top of the Premiership in most seasons, yet they are so far behind Chelsea, the leaders are just blue miniatures on the horizon.

Frustrating is not the word for it, but they continue to perform like they believe a miracle might be in the offing. This was their 15th win in 19 Premiership matches and they have accrued 49 of the 57 points available since they last lost in the League, to Portsmouth on 30 October. And a fat lot of good it is doing them, because, like anyone looking for a good time in London, there is always Chelsea.

Cristiano Ronaldo proved the match-winner, but at the end of the game United were precisely where they started, 11 points behind the runaway leaders. On a sunny day, there was an end-of-term feeling to the match that was helped by opponents who, until a final flurry, looked resigned to their fate. In the corresponding game, 17 months ago, Fulham secured one of the results of the season with a 3-1 win at Old Trafford; yesterday they only looked likely to secure a repeat when they dared to attack the home goal.

For 80 minutes they played Andy Cole as a striker so lone he was running the risk of a complex, but when they pushed Luis Boa Morte up as support they hit the post and were twice denied by saves from Tim Howard. Too brittle, too late, you could say.

"Tim made two fantastic saves," United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said. "But it was disappointing that we got ourselves in the position. It was a game we should have won comfortably but on a nice sunny afternoon we made it very difficult for ourselves. Ronaldo was the only player who kept up the level of his performance throughout the game."

Ferguson is not conceding the title to Chelsea and his team suggested intent because he chose his strongest, fit 11, with Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney working the flanks to turn 4-5-1 into 4-3-3 whenever the opportunity arose. And that was virtually all the time.

Within the first 15 minutes, Rooney, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes had efforts that flew close to the Fulham goal, so United's goal after 22 minutes did not exactly hit Old Trafford like a thunderbolt, although the Fulham goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, might have felt like he had just had one whistle past his ear.

It was a textbook example of turning defence into attack as Scholes, Rooney and Keane combined with almost choreographed precision to let Ronaldo loose on the left. Striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rooney were screaming for the early ball and their inclination might have been to scream at the Portuguese winger, too, when he cut inside instead. Not for very long, however, because Ronaldo lashed a shot into the top corner with his right foot.

Five minutes later Ronaldo produced another piece of delight, controlling a 50-yard ball from Mikaël Silvestre on his shoulder as he burst through the penalty area at full pelt. He confounded gravity by getting in a shot, too, but this time the power was missing and Van der Sar was able to fall gratefully on to the ball.

Fulham had barely figured by this point, an optimistic appeal for a penalty when Cole and Silvestre collided being a rare exception, but they got in a shot on the half hour when Boa Morte attempted the spectacular from 25 yards out and wide on the left. Not surprisingly, the ball curled 10 yards wide, but at least they had made some impact with the statisticians.

The second half had such a soporific air about it that the climax came as a shock. First Fulham charged out of their shell in the 81st minute with a drive by Lee Clark that hit the post. Carlos Bocanegra followed up, but was thwarted by Howard's save and when the full-back tried again his shot was blocked by his colleague, Steed Malbranque.

Howard also saved from Cole, but the action was by no means confined to one end and United could also have scored three times in the closing minutes.

On each occasion they were thwarted by Van der Sar, who blocked a shot from Alan Smith, saved spectacularly from John O'Shea and then raced back to his line to stop Smith's lob from a full 60 yards.

The ending was as thrilling as it was unexpected, and it was made irrelevant almost immediately, because as United traipsed off the pitch the result from Stamford Bridge flashed on to the scoreboard. So much effort, to stay exactly where they were; you can almost hear the cries of sympathy emanating from London, Liverpool and Leeds.

Comments