Edinson Cavani was promised that the sound of the Stretford End would make his decision to stay at Manchester United for another year worthwhile. How pleased he must have been, then, with his wonderful 35-yard lob to open the scoring in front of that famous stand, and to hear a roar of approval from the first 10,000 United fans to visit Old Trafford since the start of the pandemic.
The finest goal to be scored in this part of Manchester this season was, thankfully, seen by supporters at first hand but it would not be a winning one. Scott Parker’s relegated Fulham spoiled the party atmosphere to earn a deserved point, with Joe Bryan capitalising on United’s air of complacency and equalising in the second half, but those lucky enough to be in attendance nevertheless went home happy.
Even so, the rancour and bitterness that has orbited the club over the last few weeks persisted, with anti-Glazer chants and placards and smatterings of green and gold among the swathes of red empty seats. This may have been United’s first home game with fans inside the ground this season but technically, it was not the first time that their supporters have been inside Old Trafford.
Yet when Cavani scored his quite wonderful opening goal and performed his trademark bow and arrow celebration in front of those United fans for the first time, there was a brief harmony.
Before kick-off, Bruno Fernandes was awarded for scoring United’s goal of the season, an arcing shot from distance in February’s draw with Everton. If he has any shame, he will have handed the prize back at full time. Then again Cavani may let him keep it, given that it was Fernandes’ dummy of a David de Gea pass which deceived the Fulham defence and allowed the ball to run through to the unmarked Uruguayan.
Some 35 yards out from an expectant Stretford End, he spotted Alphonse Areola stationed off his goal line. The Fulham goalkeeper became suddenly aware of his vulnerability and started back-pedalling but it was already too late. Cavani found exactly the right height, above Areola’s desperate hand but below the crossbar. The celebrations of the 10,000 inside Old Trafford were loud and would have been louder still if Cavani had not momentarily taken their breath away.
As is seemingly the way with modern football though, a beautiful goal cannot pass without a spot of pedantry. And in fairness, once you slowed the footage down and split the frames-per-second, it was hard to see how it had counted. Cavani was in an onside position for Fernandes’ intervention but offside for De Gea’s kick, and not one of the replays showed proof that Fernandes had actually touched the ball. De Gea, in fact, was credited with the assist.
The explanation from Stockley Park was that Simon Hooper, the VAR, had no images that definitively showed Fernandes [italics] did not [/italics] touch the ball, which were necessary in order for Cavani to be ruled offside. And though unfair on a relegated but competitive Fulham side still playing for pride, there was a compelling case to let the goal stand on its beauty alone.
Parker’s players could feel aggrieved but responded well enough, ending the half stronger than a United side which was enjoying the end-of-season atmosphere a little too much. Fabio Carvalho should really have punished such complacency when he muscled Victor Lindelof away from the ball to run through one-on-one with De Gea, but his attempt was tame and too close to the United goalkeeper.
De Gea had been selected after Dean Henderson’s evening to forget in the defeat to Liverpool and had to be alert again at the start of the second half, first denying Ademola Lookman from a tight angle and then holding Carvalho’s follow-up. United were living dangerously but passed up opportunities to give themselves a more comfortable lead, with Mason Greenwood firing a one-on-one straight into Areola.
Two minutes later, Fulham had the equaliser that their response deserved. Luke Shaw losing a fifty-fifty with Andre-Frank Zambo Aguissa afforded Bobby De Cordova-Reid with the time to break down United’s vacated left flank and cross for Bryan, his former team-mate in Bristol City’s academy. Another lengthy VAR check followed but after much deliberation, the goal stood.
United could not regain the lead. The highlight of the closing stages was an ovation for Cavani, replaced late on by Donny van de Beek. Old Trafford has a new hero and he finally has a crowd to entertain.
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