United slip off the pace already as Hughes makes a point to Ferguson

Fulham 2 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Online

These are early days yet in the 38-game, nine-month cavalcade of a Premier League season and it would be foolish to make any judgement on Manchester United, of all teams, before the clocks go back. But even Sir Alex Ferguson must be wondering, two games in, whether his six strikers will be enough.

We are still in August but it is impossible for United to ignore the fact that Chelsea have scored 12 goals to their five - of which only four have they scored themselves. When Brede Hangeland came rumbling through the United area with a minute left to get his forehead to Damien Duff's corner for the equaliser you could not help but think it was all that United deserved.

This was a great game and, along with the result at St James' Park, one that will lay to rest for a while the accusation that this is a one-sided league in which the multi-million pound behemoths always squash the little men. As for United it brought home a few of their early deficiencies, not least the concern as to who will score the goals while Wayne Rooney waits to recapture his form.

The England man was not in the squad yesterday, left at home with a stomach bug. United's new signing Bebe is not yet deemed worthy of a place. Federico Macheda travelled but was not selected. But that still left Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and, as a late substitute, Michael Owen who all played and none of them could find a way through when United needed it most.

With the score at 2-1, Luis Nani had a penalty saved by the Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale, standing in for the injured Mark Schwarzer who wants to join Arsenal by the end of the week. There was a time when a penalty at that stage of the game would have been the moment when United would have closed out the match but they missed and with the door ajar at 2-1 Fulham came bursting through. With six minutes left, United had taken a 2-1 lead from a corner that went in off the shin of Hangeland from Nani's corner. They did not deserve the win, as Ferguson admitted, and the manner in which they squandered it in injury time to Hangeland's equaliser showed their lack of conviction. That moment was a little bit of payback for Mark Hughes who, as manager of Manchester City last season, was denied a draw at Old Trafford by Owen's last minute winner in that spectacular 4-3 game. Eleven months on, and one brutal sacking of Hughes later, relations between Ferguson and his former player seemed to have thawed and the two men walked chatting to the dugouts at the start of the match.

This has not been a happy ground for Ferguson, in fact this was the first point his side had taken in three years at Craven Cottage. They will beat more sophisticated opponents than Fulham over the season but there is something potent about the tightly organised defence and direct style of the home side that Hughes has inherited from Roy Hodgson.

It was a good day for Bobby Zamora too, lauded before kick-off for his England debut this month. Yesterday, as against Hungary, Zamora did not score but he disguises that fact well with lots of direct running and bullying of opposing forwards which was effective yesterday. When Paul Scholes scored his 150th goal for United in the 11th minute it looked like it might preface a humiliating afternoon for the home side, such was the dizzying effect of United's passing. They had Fulham on the run. Javier Hernandez, on his knees in prayer on the centre-spot before kick-off, was busy and Berbatov was excellent.

It was to Fulham's credit that it did not last. United's first goal began on the left from where Antonio Valencia picked out Berbatov in the area and the striker, facing the wrong way, chose the out pass to Scholes. His shot from 25 yards was aimed at a narrow unguarded corner of the goal and caught Stockdale out because it came through a group of players and beat the goalkeeper before he had got down to it.

Fulham's plan is to get the ball forward quickly and if it must go towards the head of Zamora then so be it. The liveliness of Zamorapushed United back and Fulham had a good chance on 31 minutes when Dickson Etuhu had two shots saved at close range by Edwin Van der Sar. Before the hour Damien Duff nutmegged Patrice Evra on the left and played in Zamora down the wing. His cross was met first time by Simon Davies and Fulham were back on equal terms. Zamora missed badly with ten minutes left when Paul Konchesky crossed to the back post and he failed to hit the target.

Then came the moment when United might have finished Fulham off. Nani's corner from the right arrived quicker than Hangeland anticipated and he shinned it past two players on the line. By then United had Ryan Giggs and Owen on the pitch and either of them might have done a better job than Nani from the penalty spot two minutes later.

It was a harsh penalty award against Duff who deflected the ball up against his own hand. Stockdale pushed Nani's penalty away. That seemed to galvanise Fulham and Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic did a rotten job of stopping Hangeland who headed in the equaliser from Duff's corner from 10 yards out.

Given the memory of September's Manchester derby, Hughes will have taken nothing for granted even at 2-2 but Fulham held out. These are early days but it is fair to say that even two games in Chelsea's goal difference is already worth an extra point over United.

Fulham (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies (Gera, 90), Murphy (Greening, 81), Etuhu, Duff; Dempsey (Dembele, 61); Zamora. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Kelly, Baird, Riise.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, J Evans, Evra; Valencia (Giggs, 74), Fletcher, Scholes, Park (Nani, 67); Hernandez (Owen, 74), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Smalling, Carrick, R Da Silva.

Booked: Fulham: Duff, Greening Manchester United Valencia, J Evans

Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire)

Attendance: 25,643

Man of the match: Hangeland

Match Rating: 7/10

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