Rooney strike separates sides
Red Devils grind out a gritty win over Fulham
Last Updated: 26/03/12 11:03pm
Manchester United have moved three-points clear at the top of the Premier League table courtesy of a 1-0 win over Fulham.
The Red Devils were far from their vintage best and it took the home side 42 minutes to open the scoring at Old Trafford.
John Arne Riise failed to deal with Ashley Young's cross allowing Jonny Evans to pick out Wayne Rooney, who finished from close range.
Mark Schwarzer made a fine double save from Young in the second half to keep the Cottagers in with a shout of picking up a late point.
Fulham thought they had won a late penalty when Danny Murphy went down under a challenge from Michael Carrick, but referee Michael Oliver waved away their appeals.
That was the end of the drama as Sir Alex Ferguson's men secured a priceless victory in the title race following City's 1-1 draw with Stoke on Saturday.
Fulham started slowly but eventually emerged from their shells though and started to exploit the gaps being offered.
Mousa Dembele drove one effort wide after being invited to run at the United defence, then Clint Dempsey had a go.
The American is much more dangerous and as he set his curling shot for the corner, Fulham's 320-strong travelling support were ready to celebrate.
It was too good to be true though for a team that had only beaten United once away from home since 1959, and David De Gea made an acrobatic save.
From that moment on, the Red Devils exerted their customary pressure.
Their play was not fluent though. A long-range Danny Welbeck shot and a penalty appeal for handball against Stephen Kelly was the best they could muster until Rooney struck.
Even that was a touch odd.
Rooney ducked under Ashley Young's cross when he seemed better placed to convert than Jonny Evans behind him. John Arne Riise should have cleared but it seemed the Norwegian was surprised by Rooney's move and he failed to control, allowing Evans to slide in. The Northern Irishman had the presence of mind to find Rooney instead of going for goal himself from an acute angle.
From that moment, Fulham were doomed as Rooney rattled home his 11th goal in nine games.
If there is one player who has been as influential as the England striker since the turn of the year, it is Antonio Valencia.
Not even a month on the sidelines with a hamstring injury has affected his form and he came close to bagging a brilliant second goal just after the interval.
Setting off on a charge from deep inside his own half, Valencia exchanged passes with Rooney on halfway before squaring to Ryan Giggs and running onto the veteran Welshman's chipped return. Now Valencia was bearing down on the Fulham goal but Mark Schwarzer stayed strong and made the save
Yet for all the simplicity of that effort, United found chances hard to come by against Fulham's disciplined defending.
Javier Hernandez was introduced to give the visitors a different problem to solve but United's next opportunity was quite a while coming, and when it did, Giggs dragged it wide.
Having spoken in such glowing terms about Rio Ferdinand in the build-up, the veteran defender's exit 20 minutes from time was a worry given his long-standing back problems.
United should have made light of his departure by grabbing a second soon afterwards but Schwarzer produced a fine save to repel Young's volley, then kept out the follow-up too before Brede Hangeland prevented Giggs from converting.
In replacing Rooney with Paul Scholes, United seemed to be insuring themselves against unexpected disasters against a hitherto non-existent attacking threat.
But it was the veteran midfielder who put his own team under pressure with a pretty awful tackle on Dempsey that was fortunate to escape sanction beyond a simple free-kick.
Normally content to watch proceedings from the dug-out, Ferguson was clearly agitated and unimpressed by his side's performance.The Scot really would have been furious had Oliver awarded a penalty for Carrick's tackle from behind on Murphy in the final minute, which television replays showed he had every right to do.
|Manchester United||Team Statistics||Fulham|
|1||1st Half Goals||0|
|9||Shots on Target||2|
|4||Shots off Target||1|
|53.2||1st Half Poss.||46.8|
|65||2nd Half Poss.||35|
Barclays Premier League
|12||West Ham United||38||47|
|13||West Bromwich Albion||38||44|
|20||Queens Park Rangers||38||30|