How to explain this result? That was the question for anyone who had witnessed United dismembering Fulham on the same ground just 14 days earlier. For Roy Hodgson it came down to "moments".
The Fulham manager went on to explain that, in the 4-0 FA Cup defeat, his team had begun well but conceded a sloppy goal at a set piece, quickly followed by "a wonder strike", and it was game over. On Saturday Fulham again began well and were this time rewarded. Paul Scholes handled Bobby Zamora's header on the line, resulting in a penalty, which Danny Murphy converted, and a red card.
"It's moments again," said Hodgson. "I talk about the moment of the corner kick two weeks ago, which we defend badly and they score. Alex [Ferguson] will be thinking about [Scholes' handball]. Say he hadn't handled, the ball had just gone into the net, and they'd played on with 11 men. It could have been a totally different story."
It might still have been a less sensational tale but for the 64th-minute moment when Mark Schwarzer made a superb double-save from Park Ji-Sung and Wayne Rooney at 1-0. But he did, and with United losing their composure to the extent Rooney was also dismissed, and Cristiano Ronaldo could easily have joined him, the story was one of United's second defeat and the questions that asked, especially with Liverpool taking such emphatic advantage. The obvious one is whether this is a blip, or the onset of a crisis. Hodgson felt United had so many good players they had to remain title favourites, and the smart money suggests he is right. However, Porto and Everton, their forthcoming opponents in the Champions League quarter-final and FA Cup semi-final respectively, will draw succour from confirmation that United are by no means invincible. Fulham were organised, disciplined, hard- working and played to a high tempo. All attributes which could be used to describe Everton.
Another question is, where was United's reaction to last week's drubbing by Liverpool? United are normally dangerous when wounded, yet aside from a wild early tackle from Scholes they began slowly. Ferguson noted Fulham "lost 4-0 to us a few weeks ago, so we expected a response from them" but his own team's response only came after what he described with probable understatement as "the half-time talking".
However talented a team may be, their performances can be eroded by a loss of confidence and United appeared bewildered in a first half Fulham utterly dominated, even prior to Scholes' exit. Ryan Giggs has had a fine season but he did not look like a Footballer of the Year on Saturday; Park was anonymous; the indolent Dimitar Berbatov a disgrace; the full-backs penned back; and Ronaldo quickly sidetracked by Phil Dowd's refusal to accord him regal status.
Rooney's arrival invigorated the team but once again he failed to control his frustration at a game drifting beyond reach. Though Ferguson, to no one's surprise, criticised both red cards, Dowd had little choice but to send Rooney off. Within minutes of Zoltan Gera finding a shaft of light in a miserable personal season with a well-taken second goal for Fulham, Rooney, angered at Dowd insisting a free-kick be taken from the correct place, threw the ball wildly and furiously in the referee's general direction.
Having confronted Dowd upon his dismissal, then thumped the corner flag on his way off, he should face more than a one-match ban. If he does not, it is confirmation that the Football Association is retreating from its crackdown on dissent. Either way, with Rooney, Scholes and Nemanja Vidic all banned for United's next match, Ferguson will be relieved that their opponents in a fortnight are free-falling Aston Villa. Most of United's players will have played internationals by then. Ferguson is usually unhappy at losing players to their countries at this stage of the season, but a break from the quintuple quest might prove beneficial as it seems the pressure is beginning to weigh. Suddenly they look fragile.
Goals: Murphy pen (18) 1-0; Gera (87) 2-0.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Etuhu, Murphy (Dacourt, 67), Dempsey (Gera, 81); Johnson, Zamora (Kamara, 77). Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Nevland, Stoor, Kallio.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea (Tevez, 70), Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs, Park; Berbatov (Rooney, h-t), Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Neville, Anderson, Carrick, Fabio.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Fulham Pantsil, Dempsey; Manchester United Evans, Evra, Ronaldo, Rooney.
Sent off: Scholes, Rooney.
Man of the match: Murphy.
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