His substitute’s tracksuit top had barely been folded away, his legs scarcely stretched when Wayne Rooney found himself unmarked at Fulham’s back post and slotting in his first goal after seven games away. With Liverpool snapping around their heels it was not supposed to be as easy as this but in one of the most engrossing title run-ins for years, Manchester United continue to make effortless progress.
They are, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, turning the screw on the rest. Rooney, back for the first time since 14 January, took two minutes to score upon his return. Paul Scholes, who scored the first, was playing like it was the late-1990s again. This was United’s game in hand over the rest and, with 13 games left of the league season to play, the rest now know the size of the task. It is a five-point gap to Liverpool, a gap which last night looked more like a chasm.
Did anyone mention the clean sheet record in the league? This game means United are now at 14 matches and counting without conceding, one more and they will have broken the European record for consecutive shut-outs. There was one dubious decision in their favour last night, a throughball from Simon Davies that struck Nemanja Vidic’s arm in the area and referee Andre Marriner waved play on. The cameras caught Edwin Van der Sar raising a quizzical eyebrow and allowing himself a smile.
Thus it went for United last night. At a time when it should be getting more tense, when even the pushovers can prove awkward, for United life looks simple. Ferguson dismissed Chelsea’s prospects in a few damning lines in his programme notes and with his team in this kind of form they found last night it is hard to argue with him. Even so, Old Trafford was soulless, it had all the noise and atmosphere of a second-hand bookshop at times, but everyone here knew that they were watching league-winning form.
The signs for United are extremely good. Rooney is back to face Internazionale, not to mention the visit of Blackburn Rovers on Saturday evening, but beyond the Champions League games, the eye is drawn to 14 March and Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford. With Aston Villa eight points behind them and Chelsea now 10 points adrift, that is the date when the title race could change should Liverpool prove capable of staying in touch until then.
Scholes’ goal from the edge of the area, then Dimitar Berbatov with United’s second and finally Rooney tidying up the day’s business with his 13th goal of the season, capped a performance that was difficult to fault. Especially when you remember that Chelsea drew with Fulham in December and that Fulham took a point at Anfield. Generally speaking, however, last night Fulham lived down to their reputation away from home where they have not won once in 13 games this season.
Like Luiz Felipe Scolari, Fulham’s manager Roy Hodgson is the old-school type whom Ferguson warms to and he will like him a lot better after last night. Hodgson came to Old Trafford with a Fulham team that was without Andy Johnson, Paul Konchesky and Dickson Etuhu. In attack they had Bobby Zamora who now has not scored in the league in 1,702 minutes. It is considerably longer than the 1,302 minutes that Van der Sar has gone without conceding.
For long periods of the first half it had the makings of an exhibition game. The first goal came on 12 minutes, a corner from Michael Carrick struck at Scholes who waited on the edge of the area for his party piece. Volleying a corner first time is one of the hardest tricks in the book but, even at 33, no-one does it better than Scholes.
He caught it sweetly, Mark Schwarzer guessed right but the shot was simply too hot to handle and spun off the Fulham goalkeeper’s gloves and in. It was not Schwarzer’s finest moment. For Scholes it was his first league goal since 15 August, 2007 when he scored United’s goal in a 1-1 draw with Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Since then he has scored that unforgettable goal against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final but, all in, this was just his fourth in two seasons.
Injuries, and age, have intervened to change Scholes although you would not have thought so last night. He was marvellous. His pass found John O’Shea, deputising at right-back, who crossed for the second goal. Schwarzer and Aaron Hughes left the ball to run across their area and Berbatov tucked it in at the back post.
It was way too easy. Zamora had Fulham’s two best chances and failed to hit the target with either. Rooney’s goal came on 62 minutes, just after his substitute’s arrival, when Park Ji-Sung hit a shot that became a cross and was tidied up by the England striker at the back post. There are plenty of games left to play and, Liverpool hope, a few twists too. However, they hope for some mistakes from United and they do not seem liable to make many.
Goals: Scholes (12) 1-0; Berbatov (30) 2-0
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O’Shea (Evans, 62), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick (Gibson, 68), Scholes, Park; Tevez, Berbatov (Rooney, 61). Substitutes not used: Nani, R Da Silva, Fletcher, Kuszczak (gk).
Fulham (4-1-4-1): Schwarzer; Paintsil (Dacourt, 66), Hughes, Hangeland, Kallio; Baird; Gera (Brown, 85), Davies, Murphy (Milsom, 79), Dempsey; Zamora. Substitutes not used: Nevland, Gray, Zuberbuhler (gk), Smalling.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Manchester United: Park Fulham: Paintsil.
Man of the match: Scholes.
Attendance: 75,437.Reuse content