They did not look like champions, they did not look like Manchester United; and not just because Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick had to be the mainstays of the defence in the absence of so many team-mates. Whether Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic would have had any more success coping with a reborn Bobby Zamora is a matter of conjecture. The Fulham striker did after all lead United an equally merry dance in March, when his team overcame them for the first time in 45 years.
Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were sent off that day. Yesterday Scholes' humiliation was worse, one of the poorest performances of his distinguished career matching his club's weakest in memory. He was part of a midfield superior to Fulham's only in numbers, Sir Alex Ferguson having opted for a 3-5-2 formation that had none of the desired effect. Scholes, Anderson and Darron Gibson were outperformed by Chris Baird, who is normally a full-back, and Danny Murphy, a Merseysider who takes delight in scoring decisive goals against Liverpool's old enemy.
Rooney worked harder than anyone without ever having a scoring opportunity and Michael Owen can rarely have had so few touches in any game before being removed after 72 minutes. Nor can a large United following have made so little noise.
There was astonishingly little for them to shout about and now they must sit and suffer as Chelsea are today offered the opportunity to move six points ahead of them at West Ham. This was United's fifth League defeat of the season and although Ferguson naturally lamented the absence of so many defenders, his most telling comment was to admit: "The quality of our football was not as good as it normally is." That was something of an understatement.
"There's a fragility at the back that we couldn't do anything about," he admitted. "I just hope it doesn't cost us the League. We'll need to get defenders back and the medical staff are working overtime but there's no light at the end of that tunnel."
Roy Hodgson, who deserves enormous credit for what he has achieved since arriving to turn round a team apparently bound for relegation, was gracious enough to acknowledge that it was a good day to play what he called "a wounded United". As he also pointed out: "I can't ask any more of our players than to beat the team in front of them." Like everyone else at Fulham, the manager owes a perverse vote of thanks to the small section of supporters whose abuse caused Zamora to become a man possessed by a desire to prove, once and for all, that he can succeed at a higher level than the lower divisions, where he was so prolific with Brighton. "Last year he played well but goals eluded him," Hodgson said. "But he's never tried to go down the selfish route and stop working for the team. Now we're getting the best of both worlds."
Zamora had Zoltan Gera playing just behind him as Fulham also tinkered with their formation, far more successfully than the opposition. By using Patrice Evra as a wing back, United presumably hoped to push Damien Duff back, but the Irish winger and Clint Dempsey broke well from their wide positions into gaping space, while Murphy was his usual composed self in the centre.
The opening goal concluded a nightmarish period for Scholes. He put himself under pressure by receiving a yellow card for a wild tackle on Duff after only seven minutes. A quarter of an hour later, he was easily dispossessed by Murphy, who took a couple of strides and calmly curled his shot low past Tomasz Kuszczak. Were it not for Kuszczak, that would have been the second goal. In the previous Fulham move, he somehow managed to push Gera's volley over the bar after Zamora had deftly chested down Dempsey's cross.
Mark Schwarzer had been required to do no more than field one shot, by half-time. Things grew calamitously worse within a minute of the resumption. Duff made ground and crossed beyond the far post where Dempsey headed down and Zamora jubilantly banged in his fifth goal in four games.
Ferguson sent on Dimitar Berbatov and Fabio da Silva, which hardly represented the arrival of the cavalry, and Fulham responded with a third goal. Brede Hangeland sent forward a long free-kick, and Zamora controlled it superbly to set up Duff and spark rare celebrations. "We want four" was not a chant Fulham supporters can ever have expected to be giving full throat to against Manchester United.
It is becoming a funny old Premier League season all round.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Zamora
Match rating: 6/10