United make statement of intent

August 20, 2006
By Richard Jolly
(Archive)

Manchester United 5 - 1 Fulham

At Old Trafford, they delight in cocking two fingers at the rest of the country. On a day with plenty to applaud for Manchester United, it was no coincidence that the loudest cheers were reserved for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney
GettyImages / AlexLiveseyCristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney banish any talk of a rift at Olt Trafford on Sunday

Whether guilty of gamesmanship in Gelsenkirchen or merely winking, he was vilified after England's World Cup exit. Wayne Rooney has evidently forgiven him and so, despite his flirtation with Real Madrid, have the Manchester United supporters.

Loyalty to their own is a trait highly valued at Old Trafford. David Beckham, a pariah in much of England after the 1998 World Cup, enjoyed unstinting support at his club. Now Ronaldo can be left in no doubt that, at United anyway, he has nothing to apologise for. Others are less forgiving.

He was roundly booed by Fulham's vocal minority in a record Premiership attendance though, by the time Ronaldo volleyed a rampant United into a 4-0 lead, they abandoned that tactic and settled for a particularly popular chant of 'Stand up if you hate Chelsea'.

The Portuguese winger's strike provided proof that relations with Rooney have been repaired. The Englishman supplied the deep cross, the Portuguese lifted his finish into the roof of the net. No animosity, then, Wayne? 'It's been proved all over the summer. People say things who don't know the pair of us. I thought Cristiano was brilliant and he scored a great goal.' Sir Alex Ferguson insisted: 'They're the best of pals.'

The goal aside, the highlight of Ronaldo's display was an inventive cross with the outside of his right foot that almost yielded United a goal.

For Manchester United, whose mantra in recent months has been 'start well', it could hardly have gone better. In the last two seasons, they have ended October at 13 and nine points respectively behind Chelsea; a team traditionally primed to follow an age-old recipe to peak in the closing stages of the campaign has been undermined by Jose Mourinho's team's tendency to come out of the blocks flying (or, at the least, not conceding). "If we're up there in March and April, we'll have a marvellous chance," added Ferguson.

In that, however, they were helped by an obliging Fulham defence, supplying a timely morale boost to a club who, individually and collectively, could have enjoyed a better summer. Even without Ronaldo's infamy, Rooney's injury and ignominy, it was a World Cup to forget for Manchester United. Even Louis Saha, almost unnoticed, contrived to get himself suspended from the final for the most unnecessary of bookings.

Granted more incentive to impress by Ruud van Nistelrooy's sale, Saha was the most influential figure in the 20-minute match that preceded a 70-minute extended training session, created by United's excellence. Fulham were blown away, with their former forward to the fore from the start.

Six minutes had elapsed when Saha headed in Ryan Giggs' left-wing cross. Goalscorer turned provider with a low centre that Ian Pearce, attempting to stop Rooney scoring, turned in for an own goal. Manchester United's two strikers both figured in their third goal, too; Gary Neville's curling cross was met by the Frenchman on the volley and, following a fine save by Antti Niemi, turned in by Rooney for the first of his brace.

Then came Ronaldo's goal. Game over, though Rooney added a fifth following a marauding run from Wes Brown after Heidar Helguson, via Rio Ferdinand's chest, had scored a consolation goal.

Louis Saha
Empics / NealSimpsonSaha celebrates during an impressive display

Manchester United, therefore, are top of the league, opening the season with five goals for the first time in 40 years. Judgment on United's title credentials, however, should be withheld. This was the sort of match to camouflage failings, distract from a shortage of summer signings and render the absent injured irrelevant. The kind of game where it is easy to assert that all is well at Old Trafford, even though their most reliable goalscorer for four decades has not been replaced.

Stiffer tests await. With Rooney and Paul Scholes banned, United will be depleted for the next three games 'It's disappointing, but that's why we have a squad of players,' Ferguson insisted. 'The younger players are getting better. There's more maturity about them.'

That is debatable: Rooney's recent actions have incurred suspensions for club and country. But, as the United manager cited Mikael Silvestre's position on the bench as evidence of his strength in depth, much of his post-match views could be disputed. He was on safer territory describing Ronaldo as 'a great player'. There would be few dissenters at Old Trafford after the Portuguese winger's homecoming.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Louis Saha - The excellence of Rooney and Ronaldo was no surprise, but Saha's may have been the most significant performance. United will rely on him, particularly in the next three games.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Brown is no stranger to poor tackles. His challenge on Ryan Giggs was vicious and malicious, yet only brought a yellow card. There is a case for retrospective sanctions to upgrade it to the straight red it merited, and giving him a deserved ban.

UNITED VERDICT: Outstanding and - whisper it quietly at Old Trafford - reminiscent of recent Arsenal sides in the way they demolished the opposition and ended the match as a contest within 20 minutes. But, given how poor Fulham were, how much can be read into it?

FULHAM VERDICT: Is this the Premiership's worst defence? For all the energy of Jimmy Bullard in midfield, it will take a drastic improvement at the back to prevent Fulham from becoming embroiled in a relegation battle.

INJURY NEWS: Michael Carrick is, according to Ferguson, progressing on his recovery from an ankle injury. He could make his debut next week.

OVERHEARD: Outside the cricketing Old Trafford, a couple of members turned around and, seeing a fan in United's new home kit, one said: 'I thought that were Viv Richards.' The supporter in question was a good two decades younger than the great West Indian batsman, had a Mancunian accent and his skin colour was somewhat paler. Otherwise, the resemblance was uncanny.


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