After a midweek clash with Southampton that left many on the edge of their seats, fans were hoping Manchester United would make lighter work at the weekend, with a Saturday evening clash away to Fulham at Craven Cottage. The visit provided an opportunity to go 10 points clear at the top of the table, at least temporarily, and Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped his side would capitalise on the opportunity.
With that in mind, David De Gea took place in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in front of him. Rafael Da Silva returned at right back, with Evra on the left. The midfield saw the wide men return with Nani and Valencia on the wings. In the centre, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were paired, with Wayne Rooney sitting just behind Robin Van Persie, leading the line up front.
The first half was an extremely open ended affair, with both sides testing the opposing goalkeepers and rattling the woodwork on multiple occasions. Both sides had chances early on, with Riise forcing De Gea into a good save from 25 yards and counters forming quickly, such as when Ruiz hit the post after being found by Riise, with United collecting and going on the attack themselves. Hangeland nearly opened the scoring at the wrong end, when a corner caught his head and the result was a ball that came off the angle between post and bar. These were just a few moments in a half that was not short of drama and in which either side could have found themselves breaking the deadlock. It was truly end to end, and amongst all the pal, as half time approached, the stadium added to the unpredictability as the floodlights went out and play was stopped.
Power was soon restored to complete the last minutes of the half as the sides went in at half time all square at 0-0. The second half was not played with the same pace that fans witnessed in the first, with fewer of the clear cut chances and dalliances with the woodwork of note. With the heights of the first half yet to be reached, Sir Alex made the first change soon after the hour mark, with Valencia replaced by Javier Hernandez. 10 minutes later, and Ryan Giggs replaced Cleverley, with United still looking for something to break the deadlock, and Fulham showing some threat themselves. FInally, with a stalemate looking ever more likely, David De Gea played a long ball, with Rooney getting to it, set himself and fired into the bottom corner to give his side a 0-1 lead going into the closing stages.
The last 10 minutes proved extremely tense. A final change was made, with Welbeck coming on for Nani, hoping to find a second goal to seal the game. However, Fulham came forward and pressed themselves, coming closing to an equaliser in injury time, when Senderos got a head to the ball, only for Van Persie to do his duties at the other end of the field and clear off the line. Despite injury time going on longer than first thought, United held on for the 0-1 win, taking a 10 point lead at least until Sunday, when Manchester take on Liverpool.
With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Fulham’s debt paid off…. but not the electricity bill?
Although disruptive to the game, one could not help but find some comic relief in the lights going out, and not for the first time at Craven Cottage. Given Al-Fayed converting Fulham’s debts into equity, jokes about failing to pay the electricity bill were bound to surface.What was interesting to note is the way in which the game seemed to change afterwards. The players left the field only to come back out and resume playing for minutes before going back in again at half time. From there, the game was never played in quite the same fashion as the first half had started. The clear cut chances had not surfaced quite so easily, attacks were more frustrated and chances were hard to come by. That said, one could not call the game boring, both sides were in it and it could have gone either way.
2) Goals prevented by Van Persie are just as important as the ones he scores
The investment laid out to bring Van Persie to United was done so with the expectation that a prolific goalscorer would bolster the front line and add a welcome dose of firepower up front. Indeed, the Dutchman has not disappointed in that regard, producing goals and assists in his debut season at Old Trafford. Saturday’s outing was a quieter one for him, although his constant danger meant he could never be discounted from a game. However, his biggest moment came in the closing stages of a game, when he cleared a Senderos header off the line. He prevented a certain equaliser that would have earned Fulham a point. The point is that it was encouraging to see every member of the side do their bit to ensure victory and that, at 0-1. the goal he prevented is just as important as all the wins United could attribute to him so far this season.
3) Does Rio Ferdinand deserve one last contract?
Rio Ferdinand was quoted as saying the lack of contract negotiations so far has not concerned him and that he would like to stay at United. This season, the English defender has played his part and contributed to the back line, still showing quality despite his advanced playing years. I have been in two minds as to whether or not he should be given one more year in United colours. Part of me believes it is time to phasing out the old guard and replacing, either with the younger players Sir Alex currently has, or perhaps bringing in one defender to replace him. However, there is also some value to keeping him at the club next season, perhaps with less playing time as Sir Alex wishes to transition in a replacement or give his new look back four a transition year with him acting as cover.
His performance against Fulham, along with Jonny Evans, probably went some way to convincing Sir Alex of the merits of keeping him. Both defenders were solid at the back on Saturday, organising well and showing determination as United held on to their slender lead to take the 3 points. It was further proof that Evans has developed into a high quality centre back, and that Ferdinand maintains many qualities relished at the back.
4) In David We Trust
It would have been encouraging to the side, particularly De Gea himself if he saw it, to see the banner in the away end stating on a Spanish flag “In David We Trust”. It was a show of support for United’s young goalkeeper who has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks. Given the price tag and the club he is at, it is unsurprising to find him come under pressure, although it could be said it has been excessive at times.
Despite this, De Gea put in a strong showing on Saturday. The highlight of his game was when a shot from Ruiz was rifled against the bar, with replays showing that De Gea got finger tips to it in what was a superb reflex save. He also had a hand in the winning goal. He displayed his shot stopping abilities, something that had been in no doubt from fans. Not only that, he looked more confident in going for aerial balls and relished his time out on the pitch. A eye-catching display in light of the negative press.
5) Rooney’s strong finish
Fans will have been glad to see Wayne Rooney look energetic on the attack for United. Arguably man of the match, although De Gea is perhaps more deserving of the accolade, he did all he could to get involved in everything for the side, and managed to get himself a chance when it mattered most and seal the winner when the game looked as though it might have been heading for a draw. It was a strong finish, a confident one struck well into the bottom corner, with Roy Hodgson watching on.
One final point that could be made is regarding the return of the wingers for the trip to Fulham. Nani looked the better of the two, more lively and it would appear Valencia is still struggling with whatever it is that has caused his slump. In truth at times, Evra and Rafael looked more like wingers getting forward than United’s actual wide men on this occasion. With Nani only recently returning from injury, he could well be on the ascendancy, but questions remain over what will be seen from Valencia.