Manchester United 1-0 Fulham: Red Devils ride their luck to the top of the table
Published 22:04 26/03/12 By David McDonnell
Vintage Manchester United? No, but job done and another big step taken towards a 20th league title.
Wayne Rooney's 28th goal of the season was enough to give United a three-point lead over local rivals Manchester City in the race for the title.
And with United's next four games against teams in the bottom six, Sir Alex Ferguson's men could be forgiven for thinking they already have one hand on the famous trophy.
With City wobbling and facing tough trips to Arsenal and Newcastle, the momentum is definitely with Ferguson's troops as they fix their sights on a second successive domestic crown.
At this stage of the season, fortune also plays its part and United were handed a huge slice of luck when Fulham were denied what looked a clear-cut penalty in the 89th minute.
Michael Carrick clearly made contact with Danny Murphy as the former Liverpool midfielder tumbled to the ground, but ref Michael Oliver failed to point to the spot.
Fulham boss Martin Jol, clearly aggrieved at the decision, suggested Oliver was not brave enough to award a penalty against United at Old Trafford so late on.
Whatever the reason behind Oliver's controversial decision, the reality is that United have restored their points advantage over City, with their ninth win in 10 Premier League games.
Since losing 3-0 at Newcastle on January 4, United have shown relentless consistency, picking up 28 points from a possible 30, the form of champions at the business end of the campaign.
Fulham arrived at Old Trafford with one hand tied behind their backs, having lost on 18 of their previous 19 visits in all competitions, stretching back to 1949.
But they were anything but inhibited early on, playing with an assurance and conviction that belied their poor form on the road, with just two wins from 14 away games.
United began slowly, their game lacking its usual swift tempo, with numerous passes going astray, as they struggled to develop any rhythm to their play.
With United uncharacteristically static in midfield, Fulham enjoyed greater possession, Clint Dempsey twice testing David De Gea with long-range efforts in the first half-hour.
Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck combined well just before the half-hour, the latter's back-heeled flick wrong-footing the Fulham defence, who eventually managed to clear the danger.
Three minutes later and Patrice Evra came close to scoring with an audacious bicycle kick, sending the ball trundling wide after Ryan Giggs's delivery had been nodded his way by Stephen Kelly.
With the crowd becoming more vocal, United upped their game, Evra appealing for a penalty in the 40th minute when his cross seemed to be diverted by Stephen Kelly's right arm.
It mattered not, for United duly took the lead in the 41st minute, fortune again playing a part in the only goal of the game.
John-Arne Riise was caught out by team-mate Brede Hangeland's failure to head clear Ashley Young's cross, Jonny Evans cutting the ball back for Rooney to score his 28th goal of the season from six yards out.
Valencia came close to doubling United's lead two minutes after the break.
Starting the move with a quick one-two with Rooney, Valencia surged forward on to Giggs's through ball, only to be thwarted by a fine close-range stop from Mark Schwarzer.
Ashley Young brought another fine save from Schwarzer six minutes later, the Fulham keeper scrambling down to his left to palm away a curling, goal-bound shot as United stepped up a gear in search of the second goal to kill the game.
Fulham lacked the self-belief they showed in the first-half, with United dominating possession and creating chance after chance, although the second goal simply refused to come.
Welbeck, for whom little came off last night, was replaced by Javier Hernandez in the 63rd minute, Ferguson no doubt hoping the Mexican's pace and poaching instinct would enable United to plunder the all-important second goal.
Young twice went close to finding it, but Schwarzer once again came to Fulham's rescue with two instinctive stops, Giggs failing at the third attempt with the rebound.
United endured a nervy finish, not least with the contentious penalty claim, but survived to put daylight between themselves and City with games fast running out for Roberto Mancini and his players.