It says something for the recent upturn in Manchester United’s performances that securing a 10 point Premier League lead in beating Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday came with its disappointments. United beat Mark Hughes’ mid-table Londoners but there was little convincing about the Reds’ 15th home victory of the season. Yet, with Arsenal not in action until Sunday, United take a commanding lead into the last six matches of the Premier League campaign.
Goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia sealed the win but Fulham can feel unfortunate not to have taken something out of the match. Indeed, the Londoners started brightly and will point to the minor details, which changed a game that rarely shone as bright as the unseasonal Manchester weather. Berbatov benefited from whatever doubt there may have been in being ruled onside on 12 minutes and then a deflection on Nani’s cross enabled Valencia to nod home just the second goal of an injury hit season.
“It was a result but I wouldn’t say it was a job well done at all,” said manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We were a bit casual and lackadaisical. In the first half we played some very good football and could have scored a couple more, but we became wasteful with our possession in the second and might have suffered for that.”
Berbatov’s goal was the 22nd of a fruitful if sometimes frustrating season and a beautifully worked team strike at that. Yet the Bulgarian rarely sparkled as he had done in United’s second-half comeback at West Ham United last week. If the striker was often subdued, then his colleagues often followed suit, prompted perhaps by the eight changes made by Ferguson.
“You trust the squad. It wasn’t a risk when you know the players. I picked the right team,” added Ferguson.
Ferguson’s use of his full squad was never in doubt and the absent Wayne Rooney, banned for two matches this week by the Football Association for use of foul language, would probably have started on the bench. Still, with Javier Hernández, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Edwin van der Sar all rested, United’s performance was understandably disjointed at times.
United has dropped only two points at home in the league this season and with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Tuesday Ferguson will be pleased to chalk off another three points.
Yet Fulham could easily have taken the lead before Berbatov’s controversial early strike. Recalled Pole Tomasz Kuszczak, who confirmed yesterday he will leave United in the summer, saved long-range efforts from Gael Kakuta and Moussa Dembele, while Bobby Zamora wasted a good early chance by firing high and wide.
However, in width United possessed the game’s two most dangerous figures. Nani on the left and Valencia on the opposite flank consistently create openings for the hosts. Nani’s mazy run, and exchange of passes with the returning Anderson, created the opening for Berbatov’s strike. The Portuguese then set up Valencia for the second ten minutes later, beating Mark Schwartzer to a loose ball before crossing with the aid of a deflection.
The two assists takes the former Sporting player to 18 for the season and nine goals, although incredibly not on to the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. The much-lauded Gareth Bale, by contrast, has seven goals and one assist in the Premier League to his name.
The early goals enabled United to take a degree of control in an Old Trafford atmosphere that will surely be more lively in Gary Neville’s recently announced testimonial, which will take place in mid-May.
Anderson, not for the first time, should have scored but screwed his shot wide, and then Chris Smalling headed just wide against his former club. Further chances were wasted by Anderson and Darron Gibson could have increased United’s lead in the second half, although the visitors again gave as good as they got.
“They could win everything,” added Hughes, whose relationship with the United manager has never been anything less that spikey.
“They are ticking games off and when you get to this stage of the season, they have been here, understand what needs to happen and what it takes. It is a big ask. Sir Alex would say himself it is very difficult to do, but trust me, it is something they will try and achieve. Good luck to them.”
Indeed, with United one up in the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, 10 points ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League and facing inconsistent Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final, Untied supporters have every right to dream.
In Europe the path to a third final in four years is open, with United likely to meet mid-table German side Schalke in the semi-finals should Ferguson’s side overcome Chelsea on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, winnable games against Everton and Newcastle United come before the Reds face Arsenal and Chelsea in early may.
It is indeed a remarkable season. In many ways United’s side without “stardust” is seemingly the worst at Old Trafford for five years. Yet nothing supersedes the results, which now point to another historic season.
United – 451 – Kuszczak; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Owen 73), Gibson, Scholes, Anderson (Fabio Da Silva 76), Nani (Carrick 87); Berbatov
Fulham – 442 – Schwarzer; Hughes, Hangeland, Baird, Salcido; Dempsey, Murphy (Greening 82), Etuhu (Gera 67), Kakuta; Zamora, Dembele (Gudjohnsen 55)
Attendance – 75,339
Man of the Match – Nani
Possession: United 54% – 46% Fulham
Attempts: 16 – 12
On Target: 12 – 5
Corners: 8 – 3
Fouls: 12 – 8