Manchester comfortably progressed into the fifth round of the FA Cup with a 4-1 victory over Fulham at Old Trafford.
The result never looked in much doubt from as early as the third minute when Ryan Giggs slotted home a penalty. United continued to press throughout the first half but had to wait until after the break to make the game safe courtesy of two quick-fire goals from Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. The Mexican added a fourth midway through the second period before Aaron Hughes headed in a consolation.
There was much talk before the match about Dimitar Berbatov’s first return to Old Trafford since leaving United for Fulham last summer. But the brilliant Bulgarian struggled to make any impact with his side on the back foot for much of the 90 minutes.
Despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s stated desire to end Manchester United’s drought in the FA Cup in recent seasons, he again used the competition to rotate his squad. The likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie all had the afternoon off.
Ferguson, though, will doubtless have viewed it as an opportunity to give Anderson and Nani in particular vital game time as they continue to strive for full match sharpness after injuries.
Any danger that his altered lineup would prove costly was on the way to being dispelled almost from the kick-off. Wayne Rooney capitalized on a Fulham error and came close to finding the back of the net, but from the resulting corner Hughes handled the ball and referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot. After United’s recent difficulties with penalties, particularly involving Rooney, Giggs stepped up and slotted the spot kick into the bottom corner just past the despairing dive of Mark Schwarzer.
United could have had another penalty in the 20th minute as Damien Duff handled the ball in the area, but this time the appeals were waved away. Rooney also forced two fine saves from Schwarzer.
The closest Fulham came to a response in the first half was a powerful drive from full-back Sascha Riether that traveled just wide of David de Gea’s post.
United’s lead would be doubled five minutes into the second half. Anderson found Rooney breaking through the middle with a fine pass and the forward cut back inside Hughes to befuddle the defender before driving the ball into the net on his less-favored left foot.
Just two minutes later it was 3-0. Nani just failed to find Hernandez unmarked in the area, but the ball would break to Rooney down the right whose deflected cross bounced toward his strike partner to clinically strike low into the corner
Hernandez got a helping hand with his second and United’s fourth goal when he found space in the area and cut back onto his right foot to shoot but saw his effort deflect off the boot of Hughes and trundle into the corner with Schwarzer unable to readjust.
Hughes was having a miserable day but he did at least have something to cheer as he rose above Rooney at the near post to head home a corner from the right.
Fulham will now have to focus on ensuring that they don’t get sucked into a relegation fight, while United await the fifth round draw on Sunday.