Watched by the double Olympic champion Usain Bolt, Manchester United were sluggish out of the blocks and almost caught on the line before recording their habitual home victory over Fulham. It was a tenth in succession against notoriously poor travellers, who nevertheless scored first and last, causing considerable anxiety among home supporters watching a defence that was again lacking Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
Further forward United's difficulty appears to be finding the best blend amid an embarrassment of riches. Hence the decision to leave out Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Paul Scholes after last Monday's defeat by Everton. Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa justified their selection by linking well and each scoring on their home debut, and Rooney's late injury, having been brought on for the last 20 minutes, means the new pair are likely to be given a further chance to develop a promising partnership.
Rooney and Welbeck joined the fray as Fulham surprisingly reduced their deficit to 3-2, having looked well beaten after conceding three times in 30 minutes of the first half. In the end it took a smart save from Bryan Ruiz by David de Gea, redeeming himself after a mistake cost that second goal, to prevent the visitors taking a point to add to the three from their 5-0 win over Norwich last weekend.
Overall, it was a game as changeable as the Manchester weather, which left Sir Alex Ferguson unsure about the balance between positives and negatives. "We were playing brilliant football and dominating after a bad start," he said. "You're talking about winning by four or five goals, then we lose a stupid goal through bad defending and that made it a game."
With the manager clearly impressed by his new Japanese midfielder Kagawa, it was difficult to see how Van Persie and Rooney would fit in without one of the trio playing out on the left. Never afraid of the difficult decision, Ferguson opted to leave last season's leading scorer in the dug-out to start with, making the £24m Van Persie the focal point of the attack with Kagawa behind him. That allowed Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to take the wide roles, with Anderson and Tom Cleverley as the more defensive midfielders.
Once United settled, it all worked rather well. It was still a Bolt from the blue that struck Old Trafford less than three minutes into the game. The Swedish winger Alex Kacaniklic was fouled by Michael Carrick – forced to play in defence again - and as Ruiz cut the free-kick square in a classic training ground move, Damien Duff made just enough space, as his marker slipped, to drag his left-footed shot into the net. It was Fulham's first goal for six years here.
However, after only seven minutes Patrice Evra crossed from the left and the ball sat up nicely for Van Persie to swivel and hit the sort of goal that Arsenal became accustomed to.
With the Dutchman and Kagawa quickly becoming accustomed to each other's game, Fulham were under pressure from thereon in. Twice before half-time they conceded corners on the right, failed to clear them and paid a heavy penalty. In the 35th minute the ball was nodded out only as far as Cleverley. Mark Schwarzer parried his strong drive and protested in vain that Kagawa was offside as he knocked in the rebound; television replays suggested the assistant referee was correct, as he certainly was in briefly reprieving Fulham when Rafael did the same thing.
The adventurous full-back would not be denied however, and four minutes before the interval he played his part in a short corner and was then at the far post to head in Young's chip. Fulham failed to reduce the arrears just before half-time, when De Gea forced Mladen Petric's shot on to the bar.
The tempo slackened for 20 minutes in the second half until the visitors introduced Steve Sidwell for some extra midfield energy and were rewarded with a bizarre goal. Matthew Briggs, the left-back, pumped over a routine cross that United would have expected the goalkeeper to deal with, even under pressure from Petric. Instead De Gea flapped, the ball bobbling off Nemanja Vidic and into the net for an own-goal.
Rooney and Welbeck duly arrived, the former up front with Van Persie, the latter wide on the left. Rooney hit one free-kick into the defensive wall and curled another shot past the angle of bar and post before diving in bravely to block a shot by another substitute, Hugo Rodallega, and suffering a deep cut to the leg. With Ryan Giggs also on, there was no other replacement available and home crowd could not relax until the four minutes of added time were finally done.
Manchester Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Carrick, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Anderson (Giggs 81); Valencia, Kagawa (Rooney 68), Young (Welbeck 68); Van Persie.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Briggs; Duff, Dembele, Diarra (Baird 81), Kacaniklic (Sidwell 62); Ruiz; Petric (Rodallega 72).
Referee: Kevin Friend
Man of the match: Kagawa (Man United)
Match rating: 7/10