A crispy afternoon almost six years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo curled a superb effort in the bottom corner of the goal in front the Putney End, a goal that went some distance to establish United’s credentials as worthy title challengers.
As Wayne Rooney slotted the ball past Mark Schwarzwer 12 minutes from time to settle a topsy-turvy encounter, many of the fans packed in the away end would have felt the same relief as United opened a 10-point gap (at the time of writing) over City.
Despite the controversy surrounding his responsibility for the goal conceded against Southampton on Wednesday, David De Gea retained his spot in goal, with Jonny Evans partnering Rio Ferdinand in the middle of the back four while Nani replaced Kagawa in midfield, as Rooney and Van Persie were assigned the task of leading the line up-front.
With just eight minutes gone Patrice Evra missed the opportunity to put United in front as his close range hit the bar after a superb save from Schwarzer had denied the visitors.
Fulham were a transformed side to the one that had conceded four at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, as Riise and Ruiz went agonisingly close to put the hosts in front, – the former forcing a smart save from De Gea, the latter striking the bottom of the post.
With Fulham not happy to sit back and let United take the initiative, the Reds were denied space in midfield, with Carrick and Cleverley labouring more than normal to feed Van Persie and Rooney, while Nani and Valencia also had their work cut out by the Fulham full-backs.
Halfway through the first half, Hangelaand almost put the ball in his own net as he hit the frame of the goal, before Wayne Rooney struck the post after a clever flick from Tom Cleverley had set up the United striker, the upright denying what would have been a sumptuous end to a fine team move.
With 42 minutes played, darkness descended on Craven Cottage as the lights went out for about five minutes – the second time United have had to face a floodlight failure this season.
The second half began in much calmer fashion, with United struggling to create clear-cut chances and Fulham now happy to sit back and take their opportunities on the counter, particularly through the industrious Ruiz, who proved to be a handful for Ferdinand & Co at times.
Hernandez replaced Valencia with just over an hour gone as United stepped up a gear in pursuit of three points, before Giggs replaced Cleverley ten minutes later, adding some much needed fresh legs to a midfield that had starved Rooney and Van Persie of service.
Riether drew a smart save from Dr Gea before Ruiz forced a goal line clearance from Rafael but, just as Fulham looked set to snatch a result, Jonny Evans’ lofted pass found Rooney, who broke free before curling a brilliant effort past Mark Schwarzer and send the United end berserk.
It was Rooney’s third goal in the last two games, an ominous statistic for a player well renowned for hitting purple patches when his team needs him to.
Fulham kept pushing on but it was another striker to deny them, Van Persie clearing a header almost off the line as United survived four minutes of injury time to hold on as they took another step towards regaining the title. A small step, whose significance shouldn’t be overestimated, but it’s a step nevertheless.
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