Saturday, February 2, 2013
Rooney is United's ray of light
John Brewin, Craven Cottage
Let there be light. The ironic cheers that greeted floodlight failure turned into murmurs of confusion but, as soon as radio legend and Fulham MC David 'Diddy' Hamilton suggested fans might be best advised to seek refreshment, the lights slowly crept back on.
Manchester United could resume a laboured pursuit of putting ten points between themselves and Manchester City. Despite hitting the woodwork three times in the 41 minutes that preceded the black-out, United had looked way off-beam. They would stay that way, too and, if anything, they worsened after their unscheduled break.
United needed a glaring error from Philippe Senderos to rescue them. The Swiss defender dallied disastrously to let Wayne Rooney score a goal that was beautifully taken but extremely harsh on Fulham. To win when playing badly is said to be the mark of champions, though league winners can rarely get away with performing so poorly in search of a crown. But what United possess is players who know how to get the job done, and this was Rooney's turn to show indomitable belief.
Thereafter, United held on grimly. Jonny Evans led the rearguard effort, with the type of showing his team expect of Nemanja Vidic, absent again with injury.
Added time was played out with Mancunian - be they Red or Blue - nerves jangling. Patrice Evra resorted to amateur dramatics to win a free-kick. Rooney upped the ante with protests that won him a booking. Robin van Persie made an unusual match-winning contribution, heading off the line as Senderos tried to make amends from one of a constant flow of Fulham corners.
United celebrated, with exhalations of relief filling the night sky. They'd won ugly, with many blemishes on show and a distinct absence of any of their usual charms. Yet they had the type of scrubbed win in west London that City failed to get on Tuesday at Loftus Road. City played far better during their 0-0 draw, but know that they must beat Liverpool on Sunday to keep their hopes credible. Roberto Mancini's belief is that his team can get to Old Trafford on April 6 within four or five points and strike from there to reclaim their title. He was probably enjoying United's signs of strife.
Van Persie, in particular, looked dulled. The touch was off, passing awry, and an early second-half headed chance was met weakly. United can ill afford the Dutchman's performance level to drop: his excellence has done much to cover up the team's clear weaknesses. He cut a frustrated figure, often letting his team-mates know of his disquiet. Ryan Giggs, on as a late sub, made the type of pass that Van Persie converted so perfectly at West Ham. This time, his foot limply deflected the ball into the chest of Senderos.
On the sideline, Sir Alex Ferguson chewed angrily. A Fulham team without Dimitar Berbatov was matching his. Whenever United falter, questions are raised about their midfield. Michael Carrick lacked his usual assurance, while Tom Cleverley ran hard but ineffectively. Fulham's collection of ratters and scurriers were exerting more energy in the centre of the field.
The Cottagers were making the better chances too. On the hour, Rafael made a goal-line clearance that would not be United's last. A Bryan Ruiz shot drifted just wide. Evra had to hustle to prevent Ashkan Dejagah heading in.
A lack of Berbatov closed down a storyline but created a question. After a performance of dissonance at Old Trafford last week, there was to be no revenge mission. The Bulgarian stroller's hamstring problem might be a concern if Fulham were in more imminent danger, but the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa are too far adrift for Cottagers to be too concerned. However, Fulham played far better without him, though they could have done with his craft and calm when chances were snatched at.
"We needed a goal. We didn't find that goal, and they are always good enough to score," said Martin Jol. "I thought this was one of our better performances this year."
A 2-1 win at a similar juncture in the 2006-7 season was a crucial step towards United's first title in four years. They have won all but two championships since, despite a rather mixed record at Craven Cottage. Six years ago, they were made to wait for Cristiano Ronaldo's winner. Such patience was required again, and Rooney scored from the exact same wing his friend once did, stealing in and slotting wide of an unsighted Mark Schwarzer. "It was something out of nothing," said Jol.
His defence held on for far longer than at Old Trafford in the FA Cup a week before, even though Schwarzer needed to twice make clawing saves in the opening minutes. Patrice Evra hit the angle after the Australian had stopped Brede Hangeland from scoring an own goal off his shoulder and then sprung to his feet to stop a snapshot from the Frenchman.
Schwarzer might not even have been playing had Maarten Stekelenburg not arrived in London on Thursday only to realise that Roma no longer wanted to loan him out. The veteran's time may be dwindling, but he continues to be solid.
David De Gea's reputation as a shot-stopper was enhanced by some acrobatics to stop a dipping and swerving long-ranger from John Arne Riise, and he got a fingertip to a Bryan Ruiz shot that hit the post. Fulham were signalling a danger never revealed in Manchester, and added defensive solidity too.
Hangeland hung frequently to block off the crossed ball until he was substituted with an Achilles injury. Antonio Valencia, who has never matched his form of last season, struggled. The high-speed train has turned into a halting engine. Nani was to be found cutting in from the left, but usually frustratingly. Rooney buzzed around, but Fulham looked capable of repeating QPR's holding off of a Manchester giant.
"I think it was really determined performance. It wasn't easy because Fulham played their part," said Ferguson with no little relief after Rooney's rescue job. The Red half of Manchester finds itself cheering on Liverpool.