Manchester United moved 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League as Wayne Rooney struck late to give his side a 1-0 victory over Fulham in an entertaining encounter at Craven Cottage.
It was a minor miracle that the match remained goalless as long as it did with both goals living a charmed life, particularly in the first half when the woodwork was hit four times. There was further drama when the floodlights went out for several minutes just before the interval.
Chances were less forthcoming in the second half, but once again United’s attacking talent came up trumps as Rooney raced onto a long ball with 11 minutes remaining and dispatched a calm, clinical finish past Mark Schwarzer.
While they were forced to spend much of the early evening in west London on the back foot, Martin Jol will be pleased that his side acquitted themselves far better than in a 4-1 reverse to the same opponents just a week earlier.
There were incredible goalmouth escapes at both ends in the early going. Eight minutes in, United must have been wondering how they failed to take the lead when a corner dropped onto an unaware Brede Hangeland and forced Schwarzer into a terrific save and then Patrice Evra shot onto the cross bar before Rooney’s hooked effort was headed off the line.
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With both sides playing with two wide players coupled with two, albeit somewhat deep-lying, forwards, there was plenty of space in the midfield which contributed heavily to the open nature of the match.
To their credit, Fulham posed United plenty of problems on the counter attack. John Arne Riise showed that he still packs plenty of venom in his left foot as he smashed a dipping shot from more than 35 yards that forced David de Gea into a fine tip over the bar.
De Gea, so often criticized, often unfairly, made an even better save minutes later. Bryan Ruiz controlled on the edge of the box before hitting an instant shot that look destined for the bottom corner before De Gea, at full stretch, somehow got fingertips on the ball to take it onto the post. It was a truly world class stop by the Spaniard.
The drama then returned to the other end of the pitch as Fulham’s woodwork got a good rattling. Hangeland was again caught out from a corner, this time mistiming a header that bounced back off his own cross bar.
The woodwork was shaking shortly after when Rooney curled a shot from Tom Cleverley’s lay off onto the post.
The floodlights temporarily threatened to bring a premature end to the action, but just as the players were walking off for an early half-time break the power returned and the game was restarted. Van Persie forced a solid save from Schwarzer to end a breathless first half.
The action was less frantic after the break and Fulham looked to be holding their opponents in check. The home side was still providing a goal threat too as Chris Baird and Sascha Riether both forced saves from De Gea with good long-range efforts, while Rafael went close for United.
Urby Emanuelson came on for Fulham to try and add energy to a side that were perhaps tiring late on. But as so often this season, United would find just enough to earn another three points in their seemingly inexorable march toward reclaiming their title.
Riether lost track of Rooney coming in from the left and as the ball bounced outside the box, the England international controlled well and took the chance with aplomb as he passed the ball into the corner of the net.
The action increased again in the final minutes as Fulham came close to an equalizer with Van Persie heading off the line from a Hangeland header and Javier Hernandez missing a chance to make the game safe on the break.