Wednesday, December 21, 2011
A night to remember
Mark Lomas, Craven Cottage
Fulham captain Danny Murphy rather optimistically urged his team-mates to give fans "a night to remember" in his programme notes ahead of Manchester United's visit to West London; a worst ever league defeat to the reigning Premier League champions was probably not what he anticipated, as most Cottagers were left prematurely reaching for their Christmas booze stash in a bid to forget.
Martin Jol's side had previously drawn with Manchester City and beaten Liverpool at Craven Cottage this season, and a comfortable two-goal victory over Bolton last week led to pre-match talk of them being "buoyed" ahead of United's visit. But Fulham sunk without a trace by the Thames, swept away by the rampant Red Devils. It was yet another away win for the men in red and yet another away clean sheet , though Phil Jones' worrying facial injury - which forced him off before half-time - may well temper Sir Alex Ferguson's festive cheer.
The damage was done in a real cracker of a first-half for United, with exquisite late goals from Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov putting the icing (marzipan-laced, of course) on the cake.
As they did against QPR on Sunday, United exploded into life in West London - Danny Welbeck setting them on their way after just five minutes with a sweeping shot to finish off a lung-busting run from Nani as he left both Bryan Ruiz and John Arne Riise in his wake. The goal was not the first major piece of action, though, that honour belonging to the collision between Jones and Clint Dempsey - the American's accidental elbow flooring United's right-back. Jones temporarily recovered to play for a further half an hour - demonstrating his bravery with a magnificent last-ditch tackle on Ruiz - before eventually being withdrawn. A scan, and possibly a mask, awaits the England international after an initial post-match prognosis suggested a suspected broken cheekbone and an absence of at least two weeks.
By the time Jones was making his way down the tunnel, United were sailing towards a first league win at Craven Cottage since 2008, as further strikes from Nani and Ryan Giggs prompted one Fulham fan to beg referee Mark Halsey to show a red card - "send him off, please, we need some help" - for an ill-timed tackle by Jonny Evans.
Goals number two and three were collectors' items as Giggs scored for a quite remarkable 20th successive Premier League season - aided massively by a deflection off Philippe Senderos - and Nani scored with his head. The Portuguese winger's goal came as a particularly apt crescendo to a musical tribute from the United fans to their former No. 7 Cristiano Ronaldo. Four years ago, Ronaldo tore through Fulham with a spectacular solo winner at Craven Cottage that proved one of the key moments in the 2006-07 title race. This time around, it was Nani who played tormentor, flicking in Giggs' left-wing cross to claim a goal to add to a pair assists on a fruitful night in West London.
All of the Red Devils' first-half goals originated in wide positions, an area of the park that Jol claimed he had identified as being a key threat. "We knew their qualities," he said in his post-match press conference. "We tried to double up on the flanks, but we made it too easy for them. We've learned from this." It was an embarrassing lesson to endure, but that Fulham couldn't prevent United's wide men from dominating is probably best taken as a sign of Nani, Valencia and Ashley Young's quality, rather than the Cottagers' defensive ineptitude. The quality of Young could be missing in the immediate future, though, as he awaits tests to discover the extent of an ankle injury picked up in a challenge he made on Dickson Etuhu.
Back in September, Jol's side produced a stirring second-half fight back to draw 2-2 with Manchester City having been 2-0 down at half-time, but there was little sense around the Cottage that a repeat performance would be on the cards as the throngs headed for their pies and pints at the interval against United. Fulham's players did at least do their best in the second period to lift their supporters' ever-diminishing festive spirits. Having taken 45 minutes to muster their first shot of the game, they came out brimming with intent and managed four decent efforts in the opening 15 minutes. Dempsey's header and, minutes later, shot were held well by Lindegaard, while Dembele skimmed one just wide and Riise powered a free-kick off-target. There were to be further efforts from Johnson, too, but the hosts just couldn't find a way through.
Referee Mark Halsey took the brunt of the Fulham faithful's abuse in the second period after making some unpopular decisions, though vitriol was also reserved for Jol and Ruiz - the Costa Rican's superb goal against Bolton last week apparently doing little to convince those fans sitting in the vicinity of the press box, who rather vocally labelled him "useless" and "a waste of £10 million", among other unprintable insults.
Fulham's misery was compounded as a pearl of a long-range strike from Rooney and a cheeky back-heel from forgotten man Dimitar Berbatov gave the scoreline a somewhat unfair weighting in the visitors' favour, but served to gift-wrap the perfect present for United's away support.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Nani. His penetrative running proved a real nuisance and there was an end product to boot as he laid on the first and third goals, as well as claiming a rare headed goal. His influence waned in the second half, but his contribution had already made the difference.
FULHAM VERDICT: A tale of two halves for the Cottagers: bereft of ideas and possession in the first and lacking luck in the second. Jol's side allowed United to roll them over far too easily but showed plenty of fight after the interval and really deserved a goal to show for their troubles. Dempsey was the Cottagers brightest spark, and his withdrawal with six minutes to go was poorly received by the home fans - "clown", "predictable" and "just not good enough" among their descriptions of Jol and his tactics.
MAN UTD VERDICT: All in all, a walk in the park for the Red Devils. Racing into a three-goal lead enabled them to relax after the break and, while they rode their luck a bit, inviting Fulham to attack, the result was a foregone conclusion. Seven wins in eight games is certainly title-defending form and a pair of festive fixtures against lowly Wigan and Blackburn will offer a great opportunity to maintain their momentum and keep the pressure on league leaders Manchester City.
EUROPA LEAGUE LOVE-IN: Crashing out of the Champions League may have been a bitter pill to swallow for Manchester United's supporters but they appear to have embraced the prospect of 'doing a Fulham' and trying to progress to the competition's final. "Thursday nights, Amsterdam" was the chant doing the rounds, in reference to United's last-32 clash with Ajax in February.