LONDON -- Turning a cottage into a fortress was Martin Jol’s grand design ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Fulham. The blueprint he laid out soon blew away with the gusts of chill wind coming in off the Thames, as Manchester United coasted to a 3-1 win.
Breached so easily by the visiting champions, it was as though a welcome mat had been put out and Fulham’s guests told to make themselves at home. United were only too happy to accept the invitation.
It was all too comfortable. Three-nil up inside 22 minutes, they could sit back, relax and grab some refreshment before Tuesday’s trip to San Sebastian where they face Real Sociedad in the Champions League.
- Payne: Januzaj a marked man
Jol, meanwhile, must have been squirming in his dugout. His bench is the hottest seat in the Premier League, and one wonders how long owner Shahid Khan can go on being as hospitable to him as Fulham were to United today.
The mood at Craven Cottage was understandably pessimistic after last weekend’s defeat to Southampton and the knockout they were dealt from the Capital One Cup by Leicester City on Wednesday night. A marriage proposal on the big screen at halftime couldn’t even lift the atmosphere, coming as it did so soon after cries of "Jol out!"
The only people smiling at the Cottage, quipped one fan behind the press box, were United’s travelling support and the Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleaders performing during the interval.
And to think Fulham had started the game relatively well. Pajtim Kasami, the poor man’s Marco van Basten, cut inside and had a shot saved by David de Gea, which turned out to be a false harbinger of Fulham making a fist of it. United, without the injured Michael Carrick, looked for the briefest of periods like they might have problems controlling the midfield.
Phil Jones, partnering Tom Cleverley in the centre, allowed a pass from Nemanja Vidic to run across him, turned to follow and found the play going the other way again as Fulham pounced on the loose ball. To be fair, he had every right to think it was the right decision to make. Fulham stood off United far too often in the opening stages. They gave their opponents all the time and space they needed.
The breakthrough came after only nine minutes. Robin van Persie came short and, with his back to goal, played in Wayne Rooney who, taking advantage of Philippe Senderos’ slip, burst into the area, squared a pass to Antonio Valencia and watched as the Ecuadorian swept in his second goal of the season.
Not long afterward, Fulham nearly got back on level terms. Released by Scott Parker, all of a sudden Dimitar Berbatov, the former United striker, found himself one-on-one with de Gea. Looking like a shadow of the player who scored 15 goals in his first season at the Cottage, though, the Bulgaria international nudged the ball agonisingly toward goal but saw it cleared away for a corner by the stretching Rafael.
Such is the cruel nature of football that, within 60 seconds, United had gone up the other end and doubled their advantage. Parker, Fulham’s best performer up until then, checked back as he so often does and, under pressure from Adnan Januzaj, lost his footing. The ball quickly found its way to van Persie, who punished Fulham’s mistake, rifling a shot past Maarten Stekelenburg to claim his third goal in as many games.
A couple of minutes later, van Persie was through on goal again -- though with a suspicion of offside -- and this time turned provider, rolling the ball back across goal for Rooney to get in on the action.
"It was a blistering period," said David Moyes, who thought there were "real, real signs of great combination play” between his strikers.
"They played through our defence like a knife through butter," Jol said with a sigh.
United were out of sight. That they were, though, wasn’t owing to a dominant top-class display but a ruthless streak. They capitalised on Fulham’s errors with a killer instinct that has sometimes been absent from their play this season. Moyes will take satisfaction from that, although this was not a pain-free afternoon.
Jonny Evans was replaced at halftime with a stiff back. So too were Rafael -- with an ankle complaint -- and Cleverley, who was suffering with double vision. Precautionary measures or worse, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be fit for Tuesday -- Rafael is apparently the biggest doubt -- and, looking further ahead, next weekend’s game against Arsenal.
Forced into so many changes, United took time to adjust after the interval, and it was in that time that Fulham put them under the most pressure. Substitute Alex Kacaniklic got a consolation goal, his shot taking a deflection off Rooney and drifting beyond de Gea. Another replacement, Darren Bent also saw a header hit the top of the bar.
Nervy for a while, United weathered the storm and began to exercise a greater degree of control. Fulham lost theirs for a moment toward the end when Sascha Riether appeared to kick and stamp on Januzaj, prompting Marouane Fellaini to come over and act as the youngster’s protector. It looked nasty and merited sanction on what was, ultimately, another dispiriting afternoon for Fulham.
With Liverpool at Anfield up next, it threatens to get worse before it gets better. Jol insisted afterward that he wants his team to take inspiration from what Newcastle did to Chelsea earlier in the day.
The Fulham boss also recalled how Roberto Martinez used to come out after many a poor result at Wigan last season with a positive outlook, which, considering the Latics ultimately went down, perhaps wasn’t the best example. “We want to turn it around,” Jol declared.
While the Cottagers continue to slide, United’s trajectory is projecting upward. Moyes spoke about gathering momentum in the week, and this was their fourth win in a row in all competitions, extending their unbeaten run to seven matches.
The consistency the champions have been searching for is gradually materializing, and they’re only three points behind Chelsea. Roll on la Real. Roll on Arsenal.