A solitary Wayne Rooney goal last night was enough for Manchester United to defeat Fulham and go three points clear at the top of the Premier League.
Having started the day behind City on goal difference, this was The Reds game in hand. With City dropping points at Stoke on Saturday this match had become vital in the title race. A win would put the pressure back on City, where as a draw (or heaven forbid, a loss) would see City take heart, putting the pressure firmly back on United. Confidence amongst the team and the fans however was high, so much so that there was talk of turning our inferior goal difference around. Sir Alex Ferguson himself admitted that the goal difference could become an “issue” at the end of the season, and thus challenged the team to go out and put Fulham under the sword.
With that in mind, United came out looking to do exactly that. As usual at Old Trafford, United controlled the game early on and dominated possession. However, Fulham held their shape and were disciplined in their play. As a result, the opening period of the game only saw a Ryan Giggs (in for the rested Paul Scholes) header provide Mark Schwarzer with any action of note.
Having been frustrated, United began to get sloppy with their passing and in turn Fulham begun to grow into the game. Carrick and Giggs looked second best at times in the centre of Midfield. That said, however, Fulham did not look likely to get behind the United back four. As it was, their only notable effort was and Clint Dempsey 20 yard shot which David De Gea, diving to his left, plucked out of the air to save well.
As sloppy as they were though, United still looked the side most likely to brake the deadlock. Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck looked most lively, with Antonio Valencia always a threat. Schwarzer was again made to work by Rafael, Young and Welbeck efforts at goal, but again he was not overly worried buy what was coming at him. The Fulham ‘keeper was also strong when United looked to whip balls into the box.
With half time approaching and it looking as if the teams would be going into the break level, up steps Wayne Rooney. Rooney was having a quiet game by his standards, but as is the way with players such as him, he only needed half a chance at goal to change a game. When Fulham failed to properly clear an Ashley Young cross, Johnny Evens was able to cut the ball back to Rooney who smashed home through a group of Fulham players to score his 29th goal of the season and put United ahead at the break.
Once again, special mention has to go to Johnny Evens. He again had a solid display at the heart of the United defence. But not only is he growing as a defender, he is now really starting to grow as a footballer. Comfortable with the ball at his feet and capable of starting attacks with intelligent passing a superb vision.
The second half began with United once again controlling the game. This time however, they appeared to have more intent. If not for the form of the Fulham ‘keeper United would have indeed killed he game off, and may well have closed that goal difference stat.
He was called into action soon after the break, saving magnificently from Antonio Valencia, after he had latched on to a delightful ball from Ryan Giggs. Shortly after Schwarzer again kept Fulham in the game when he tipped a curling Ashley Young shot around the post. Young wasn’t finished testing the in form stopper, but he was second best to him; Schwarzer brilliantly saving two more of his efforts.
On the whole though, United were not at their best, flat even. This was partly down to their sloppiness, but also credit must go to Fulham and the way in which Martin Jol had set his team up. Not only would Fulham frustrate United during their build up play, but were happy to put their bodies on the line to block anything United threw at them.
Ferguson looked to freshen and liven up the United attack up by bringing on Javier Hernandez on for Welbeck with just under half an hour remaining. With a little over ten minutes left Ferguson looked to sure things up by replacing Rooney with Scholes and tighten up the Midfield. As a precaution Rio Ferdinand was taken off also (Smalling on in his place), having felt a little tight.
Fulham as yet were to have a spell of pressure during the second half, but we all knew it would come in the final few minutes. It did. David De Gea dealt well with a number of balls in the box and the United defence had to be on their game to scupper some promising Fulham attacks.
With three minutes remaining the games moment of controversy came. Fulham sub Danny Murphy run the ball at the United defence, into the box, where he looked to be clipped from behind by Michael Carrick. From my view, directly in front of the incident, I was sure a penalty was going to be awarded. Thankfully, referee Michael Oliver waved “play on.” Martin Jol was incensed, and even Sir Alex was a little relieved after the game. I have not had the benefit of a replay, but what I’ve read matches my view at the time; we got away with one. I’m a firm believer that these incidents are ‘swings and roundabouts,’ one day we get away with one, one day we get a bad decision go against us.
The final few minutes were a nervy affair, but United held on to take the points. Although the goal difference is still a factor, at this stage of the season I’ll take 1-0 all day long.
You can follow Adam on Twitter here