Manchester United lost their discipline, composure and their stranglehold on the Premier League yesterday when Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were both sent off as their team sank to a historic defeat down by the river. As a result the title, which had appeared signed and sealed just over a week ago, is suddenly open for renegotiation. After Liverpool had their say at Old Trafford last week, United were silenced again by a first loss on this atmospheric old ground for 45 years.
Playing for more than 70 minutes with 10 men after Scholes was dismissed for handling – allowing Danny Murphy to score from the consequent penalty – the champions also lost Rooney to a second yellow card soon after Zoltan Gera had condemned them to defeat. It offers their Merseyside rivals the chance – one that Chelsea could not take at Tottenham – to move to within one point of them by beating Aston Villa today.
Fulham played with the confidence of a side ninth in the table rather than one that had only beaten United once in 30 attempts. With 40 points in the bag they can now celebrate another season at this level, a fine achievement by the much-travelled Roy Hodgson. Brede Hangeland, the lanky Norwegian centre-half coveted by bigger clubs, was outstanding again, Murphy ran the midfield for an hour and Mark Schwarzer brought off a stunning double save in the second half as the visitors finally pulled themselves together.
Until then, they were fractious and edgy, only threatening to score once the home side tired. Sir Alex Ferguson had made five changes from the side humbled at home, bringing back Ryan Giggs, Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov, who had all been introduced as late substitutes last Saturday, to the exclusion of Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Anderson while Darren Fletcher came in for Michael Carrick. But Scholes lasted only 18 minutes and the ineffective Berbatov no more than 45, Rooney replacing him at half-time.
Cristiano Ronaldo began as an orthodox striker then had to drop deeper after Scholes' sending off, although his disinclination to tackle back often gave Fulham an extra man in midfield. He was also booked for a wild challenge on Murphy and spent much time on the floor, mostly, in the referee Phil Dowd's opinion, following legitimate tackles. The home side went ahead from one of several corners they forced early on. Simon Davies took it, and although Edwin van der Sar did well to keep out Hangeland's header, Scholes also used his hand to prevent Bobby Zamora nodding in the rebound. It was a clear red card and Scholes trudged into the Cottage dressing room as Murphy, so often the scourge of United in his Liverpool days, calmly punished them again.
The goalkeeper later saved from Zamora twice and Davies, not always convincingly, and it was not until the 58th minute, when Schwarzer held a low drive from Fletcher, that United recorded an attempt on target. There were soon more to come, however, for Rooney's presence had enlivened them considerably. His chip from the byline allowed Ronaldo a header at the goalkeeper and a few minutes later came an extraordinary double save. Ronaldo crossed from the left and Schwarzer first blocked Park Ji-Sung from just a couple of yards, then parried the follow-up by Rooney. Another minute and he had to save from Ronaldo as United went for broke by bringing on Tevez and moving Park to right-back.
With Murphy off injured, Fulham's attacks had become no more than breakaways, Van der Sar's work reduced to tidying up. But in the 87th minute the substitute Gera took a pass from Andy Johnson and with Rio Ferdinand not close enough to him was able to hook in the second goal.
Rooney had been booked for holding back Olivier Dacourt and with two minutes to play he succumbed to frustration, as so often in the past, throwing the ball away after United were awarded a free-kick. Team-mates tried to claim that he was merely returning it for the free-kick to be taken but there was dissent there as well, and more when he gave the corner-flag a right-hander on his way off the pitch.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Hangeland
Match rating: 7/10