Rooney's class claims new victim in Fulham

Manchester United 3 Fulham 0: Ferguson bullish about United's chances for title run-in after second-half masterclass

Sir Alex Ferguson's minor revelation in his programme notes was that he has set his side "a title target – to win every game between now and the end of the season!" Note the exclamation mark. It suggests that this little pact is just a bit of training ground fun, made in jest like the goal-scoring bets he'd once have with Cristiano Ronaldo and the talk he'll probably soon have with Wayne Rooney about him scoring 42 goals this season. "I don't know about that but I'm not putting it beyond him," Ferguson said of that particular target last night.

But there's nothing jovial about the sight of United at present. Their eight-game run-in, with Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City all ahead, makes Ferguson's challenge a particularly formidable one in a season in which any side can upset another – and will continue to do. But they are title challengers who have quietly gathered the momentum of a juggernaut – eight wins, two draws and the loss at Goodison Park since Roy Hodgson's side dealt them a 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage in late December.

In Rooney, two goals the richer and now just 10 away from Ronaldo's 42-goal haul of two years ago, they possess a player whom Chelsea will need all the properties of a brick wall to stop when the sides meet here on 3 April.

As his side climbed back ahead of Chelsea by two points, with a goal difference which is four better, Ferguson also declared last night that he expects this title race will be the closest ever. But that is what we thought precisely 12 months ago, when Rafael Benitez's resurgent Liverpool smashed United 4-1 at Old Trafford, leaving the club so wounded that their place on that "fucking perch" that Ferguson once talked of looked as immutable as ever.

United chose yesterday to commemorate the very first game on their hallowed Stretford turf, against Liverpool, a century back. The script of that day's one- penny match programme, which was distributed with yesterday's match magazine, belonged to different times. "In their leisure moments our players have for their use a fine gymnasium, billiard or reading room and in the latter we may have our chaps preparing [to become] barristers or MPs," it read. A scenario almost as outdated as Benitez putting one over on Ferguson.

Fulham were a tired side who, just as Hodgson had predicted last spring, seemed overwhelmed by the demands of undertaking a Europa League programme on a relatively small squad. So war-weary were Hodgson's players that he gave Simon Davies and Damien Duff a job-share, fielding each for 45 minutes. But nothing should detract from the way United strolled through a team who have beaten them in consecutive league fixtures beside the Thames.

Rooney's finishing was sublime – an elegant side-footed finish from Nani's cross fewer than 30 seconds into the second half, then a sharp swipe with the in-step from Dimitar Berbatov's 84th minute assist – prompting the Bulgarian to satisfy that appetite football has for "world's best" tags. "I think he is the best in the world and he is still so young," Berbatov said. "I've just told him many times – just stay healthy and you can achieve anything."

Ferguson considers Rooney a certainty for PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year. "You can't ignore his form and I think he has a great chance of winning both," the manager said. But Berbatov's goal, a brave header to convert substitute Park Ji-Sung's fine cross a minute from time, was the most deserved of the afternoon. This has been another season when the Bulgarian's languid style and self-professed preference to be a provider rather than a finisher has called his contribution into question, but on days when the going is easy he looks like a world best, too. That word "assist" does not do justice to the way he took down a 30-yard pass, nutmegged Nicky Shorey and raced beyond Chris Baird to set up Rooney's second.

Normal service was also resumed here from Rio Ferdinand, unruffled and frequently stepping up from defence to distribute, though there were echoes of the Fernando Torres v Nemanja Vidic clash of last March when the Serbian was deceived by a long ball flicked on by Erik Nevland on 74 minutes and found himself chasing Bobby Zamora's shadow towards United's goal as Fulham scented an equaliser. Vidic placed a fine recovering tackle, though Torres will be a different proposition. Games can turn on moments like that.

Fulham needed two immaculate saves by Mark Schwarzer to save them embarrassment and Hodgson, who will learn today whether the blow to the chest which forced Brede Hangeland has caused damage, did not even offer conjecture on Rooney's value on the day when Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon mischievously suggested he was worth £100m.

"I think it's fairly pointless for me to waste everyone's time here by saying that I think Wayne Rooney is an excellent player because you can get that from the man in the pub," Hodgson said. A point of classic simplicity about a player at whose feet the course of this season now rests.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville (Fabio, 87) Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Park, 73) Fletcher, Carrick, Nani; Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), C Evans, Fabio, Obertan, Diouf, Gill.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland (Greening, 63), Shorey; Gera, Baird, Murphy, Davies (Duff, 45); Zamora, Dempsey (Nevland, 72). Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Okaka, Nevland, Stoor, Greening, Dikgacoi.

Referee: M Jones (Chester).

Booked: Man Utd Valencia; Fulham: Murphy.

Man of the Match: Berbatov.

Attendance: 75,207.

Title run-in: Challengers' remaining fixtures

*Manchester United (Played 30, Points 66)
Sun 21 Mar ......... Liverpool (h)
Sat 27 Mar ......... Bolton (a)
Sat 3 Apr ......... Chelsea (h)
Sun 11 Apr ......... Blackburn Rovers (a)
Sat 17 Apr ......... Manchester City (a)
Sun 25 Apr ......... Tottenham Hotspur (h)
Sat 1 May ......... Sunderland (a)
Sun 9 May ......... Stoke City (h)

*Chelsea (P29, Pts 64)
Sun 21 Mar ......... Blackburn Rovers (a)
Wed 24 Mar......... Portsmouth (a)
Sat 27 Mar ......... Aston Villa (h)
Sat 3 Apr ......... Manchester United (a)
Tues 13 Apr ......... Bolton Wanderers (h)
Sat 17 Apr ......... Tottenham Hotspur (a)
Sun 25 Apr ......... Stoke City (h)
Sat 1 May ......... Liverpool (a)
Sun 9 May ......... Wigan Athletic (h)

*Arsenal (P30, Pts 64)
Sat 20 Mar ......... West Ham United (h)
Sat 27 Mar ......... Birmingham City (a)
Sat 3 Apr ......... Wolverhampton W (h)
Sat 10 Apr ......... Tottenham Hotspur (a)
Sun 18 Apr ......... Wigan Athletic (a)
Sat 24 Apr ......... Manchester City (h)
Sat 1 May ......... Blackburn Rovers (a)
Sun 9 May ......... Fulham (h)

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn