Out of the darkness
Chris Burton casts an eye over an eventful encounter between Fulham and Manchester United at Craven Cottage.
Last Updated: February 2, 2013 10:08pm
Manchester United prevailed on an eventful evening at Craven Cottage
One goal, one floodlight failure, two goal-line clearances and four rattles of the woodwork, Fulham's home date with Manchester United posted some surprising numbers.
The scoreline is, however, the only thing that matters at the end of the day and a narrow victory for the Red Devils has sent them 10 points clear at the top of the table.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side strode out of the darkness to pick up another hard-fought three-point haul in the capital and it is becoming increasingly difficult to see anyone halting their march towards the Premier League title.
Fulham would have loved to unleash Dimitar Berbatov on his former employers, with it likely that the Bulgarian frontman feels he has something of a point to prove to the club that deemed him surplus to requirements last summer. Berbatov was, however, ruled out through injury and Martin Jol was left to try and plug a sizeable attacking gap. Ashkan Dejagah was the man asked to try and fill the creative void, while the ever dependable Chris Baird was drafted in to the midfield engine room in place of hernia victim Steve Sidwell.
Sir Alex Ferguson is fortunate enough to have a wealth of international talent at his disposal, and he opted to mix things up at Craven Cottage. Five alterations were made to the side which saw off Southampton in midweek, with the goalkeeping and striking departments the only ones to be left untouched. Rafael and Rio Ferdinand came into the back four, while Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley and Nani were handed midfield berths.
Fulham set out to keep things tight, with Hugo Rodallega deployed as a lone frontman. He was asked to put in plenty of leg work up top, allowing others to join him from deep. Hitting United on the counter was always likely to be the Cottagers' best chance of taking something from the game, and their game plan worked perfectly for long periods. They also looked to wreak havoc from set-pieces, with Giorgos Karagounis and Damien Duff possessing the kind of delivery from a dead-ball that can cause any side problems.
United also felt that they could get joy from crosses flung into the box, with Ferguson deciding to go with two out-and-out wingers in the shape of Nani and Valencia. Happy to be clear of a deteriorating playing surface at Old Trafford, the Red Devils were obviously keen to get the ball on the deck and carve open opportunities. They did that well at times, but were far from their free-flowing best as Fulham closed down space and made life as difficult as possible for the visitors.
Jol was forced into making the first change of the evening, with Brede Hangeland picking up a knock which saw him withdrawn at half-time. Aaron Hughes came on in his place and did nothing wrong. Deadline day arrival Urby Emanuelson was handed his Fulham debut with a little over 20 minutes remaining, as he replaced Karagounis, and the Holland international offered enough to suggest that there is more to come from him once he fully settles in England. The final switch by the Cottagers saw Mladen Petric thrown on eight minutes from time in place of Dejagah, but he was unable to help the hosts grab a late leveller.
Ferguson waited 66 minutes before showing his hand, with Javier Hernandez sent on in place of Valencia. United broke the deadlock with the Mexican on the field, but he played no part in Rooney's effort and looked a little rusty at times. The evergreen Ryan Giggs was introduced 14 minutes from the end and he helped to keep things ticking over after replacing Cleverley. United's third substitution saw Danny Welbeck enter the fray in place of Nani, with the Red Devils ending a game they were already leading with four strikers on the pitch. Welbeck was awarded just six minutes and was unable to make any impression on proceedings.
Kevin Friend enjoyed a relatively quiet evening on the field. He brandished just two yellow cards, and they both came past the hour mark. Baird was rightly cautioned for a trip on Valencia and Rooney talked his way into the book during the closing stages. The biggest decision Friend had to make was whether to take the players from the field when the lights went out. He did and was probably as relieved as anyone to see them come back on shortly afterwards.
With Berbatov missing, Fulham were looking for someone else to step up into the talisman role. In truth, no-one did. It says a lot about how they set-up and the approach they took to the game and Karagounis was arguably their standout performer. The veteran Greek midfielder remains a nuisance to opponents, as he buzzes around fighting fires in his own rather theatrical way. Hangeland is another Fulham often look to for inspiration, but he almost put through his own net twice before being forced off at the interval.
Few footballers have the ability to turn a game on its head with one moment of brilliance, but Rooney is definitely among those to boast that particular quality. With United crying out for a match-winner, in a game which appeared destined to end goalless, Rooney altered the course of the tie with a handful of perfect touches. He collected the ball, drifted forward, drew his man and curled the ball into the bottom corner. With Robin van Persie enduring a rare quiet afternoon in front of goal, United needed their number 10 to do something special, and he did not disappoint.
Jol will have been left scratching his head at the final whistle, with Fulham having given potential title-winners something of a scare. They have rarely scaled such heights over recent weeks, with inconsistency plaguing the capital outfit. If they can perform to the level they showed against United in their next few fixtures, they will soon be rid of any lingering relegation fears. Games against Norwich, Stoke and Sunderland are next on the calendar, and a confident Fulham side with Berbatov back in its ranks should have more than enough to collect a healthy points haul from that run.
United are now 10 points clear of nearest challengers Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title and are showing no sign that there will be a repeat of last season's late wobble. City have the opportunity to respond against Liverpool on Sunday, but they will need no reminding that United are starting to edge out of reach. The Red Devils have some favourable fixtures to come in the next month or so and they could have one hand on the trophy by the time they face City at Old Trafford on 6th April.