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Wayne Rooney’s solitary goal turned the spotlight on Manchester United’s Barclays Premier League title rivals after they beat Fulham in a match interrupted by floodlight failure at Craven Cottage.
Rooney’s 10th goal in as many games 11 minutes from time sent United 10 points clear of Manchester City, who entertain Liverpool on Sunday, and a massive 16 ahead of third-placed Chelsea.
It all came after a whirlwind opening was halted by a break in play just before half-time when the stadium was plunged into darkness. Prior to that, United had struck the woodwork on three occasions, and Fulham once. But instead of a goal deluge, there was just Rooney’s single strike, a cool, curling finish following David De Gea’s long punt downfield.
United made their intentions clear by selecting two orthodox wide-men and attacking from the first whistle. Fulham were far more threatening than when the two sides met last weekend in the FA Cup, despite being without former United striker Dimitar Berbatov.
It was a rip-roaring opening in which both goalkeepers excelled and the woodwork at either end was rattled. A frantic penalty box scramble after nine minutes proved to be a sign of things to come. Robin van Persie’s corner started it, bouncing off Brede Hangeland and towards his own goal, forcing Mark Schwarzer into the first of a series of excellent saves. Patrice Evra reacted quickest but could only scoop the ball against the bar before Sascha Riether cleared Rooney’s shot off the line. United maintained the pressure and Fulham had Mark Schwarzer to thank again when the Australian goalkeeper kept out an effort from Patrice Evra.
Within seconds, John Arne Riise tested De Gea with a dipping effort the Spanish youngster tipped over. De Gea got his fingertips to a stinging Bryan Ruiz shot which thudded against the post before play switched down to the other end where Hangeland, after denying Nani with a superb last-ditch tackle, turned Van Persie’s corner on to the bar.
Only then did a breathless contest slow in intensity, although a brilliant move involving Nani and Tom Cleverley created another opportunity for Rooney, which he stroked against a post.
Nani was certainly making an impression on only his fourth match back after two months out with a hamstring injury, only for his momentum to be halted as the stadium was plunged into darkness. The players did return to complete the opening period, although Van Persie’s shot, gathered at the second attempt by Schwarzer, was the only incident of note.
So brilliant has Van Persie been for United this season it is a disappointment when he has a quiet game. This one went on around him after the re-start, a failure to get any power behind a header from Nani’s cross his only opportunity of note.
Indeed, the floodlight incident seemed to take the zip out of the entire contest, with neither side coming close to matching the thrills they had produced before the impromptu break in proceedings. Van Persie did somehow wriggle his way down the by-line before setting up Nani, only for Chris Baird to block.
De Gea then parried Riether’s shot away, with Ruiz unable to get any purchase on the rebound. For a while it appeared Fulham might claim a major scalp. Rafael cleared off the line from Ruiz after Jonny Evans had been forced to head away from underneath his own bar.
Rooney had other ideas, though, and when Fulham failed to get a touch to De Gea’s long kick downfield, the England man picked his spot and, in front of England manager Roy Hodgson, calmly found the bottom corner.
Van Persie might have added a second only to volley over from close range, although the striker was required at the other end to clear Philippe Senderos’ injury-time header off the line.
Fulham manager Martin Jol: “United are a fantastic team and they caused us problems in the first 20 minutes, but during that 20 minutes we had two or three very good chances. The ball hit the post, went next to the post, a great shot, another shot. We could have scored but we didn’t. In the second half I thought we were even better. We looked dangerous and it was one of our better games this year, although we missed [Steve] Sidwell and Dimitar [Berbatov]. I’m still disappointed as we kept it at 0-0 for so long.
"You hope for more and it didn’t happen. But it was a good performance and one of our best this year. The most pleasing aspect was that we knew we had a couple of injuries. Giorgos Karagounis had to play again, he’s playing with his heart and I thought he had a good game. Hopefully it’s not serious, but I fear we may have to do without Brede [Hangeland] for a couple of weeks."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "We had so many chances. It was a terrific football match and it was an excellent result, and I'm very pleased for us. They had some great chances. Our keeper, Jonny [Evans], Rio [Ferdinand] were terrific and we had a few chances ourselves, the second half in particular.
"In the first half we hit the woodwork three times but we deserved to win. They have had a great home record over the years and it is a very important result for us. It's a good position [we are in], we are pleased. Tonight you can look at the performance of the players. They put their bodies on the line, blocking shots, great headers out of defence, [it was a] really determined effort by the players. It was a fantastic, battling performance. There was a great determination about us. I thought they were really up for it, the players, making sure they weren't going to lose the game.
"This is not an easy place to come to, as everyone knows, and over the years they've been difficult to beat here. It's a good performance, a really good game, an important result... they're all important now. It's three points for each team you play against, it doesn't matter if it's the top, the bottom or the middle, they all count."
|09 Feb 2013||v Norwich (A)|
|23 Feb 2013||v Stoke (H)|
|02 Mar 2013||v Sunderland (A)|
|17 Mar 2013||v Spurs (A)|
|01 Apr 2013||v QPR (H)|
|07 Apr 2013||v Newcastle (A)|