Roy Hodgson's Fulham celebrated the Premier League shock of the year with a 3-0 win over mighty Manchester United.
As well as beating Manchester United decisively for the second time in nine months – after Fulham had failed to do such a thing at home for 45 years – Hodgson defeated Sir Alex Ferguson in the sort of battle of tactical wits that Hodgson has relished throughout a 33-year career in charge of a dozen clubs and three countries.
During their convivial chat before the game, Ferguson naturally did not reveal that his desperate remedy for United's unprecedented crop of injuries would be to employ a 3-5-2 formation. As soon as Hodgson, standing by the Fulham dugout, saw Patrice Evra repeatedly pushing up the left flank in front of him, he was able to instruct his players to exploit the space that the full-back would normally have been guarding. Fulham had their own little tactical twist as well, using Zoltan Gera, one of Hodgson's many excellent signings, just behind the main striker, and combining both manoeuvres against such a makeshift defence worked a treat.
Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Ritchie de Laet were constantly caught out by crosses and passes in behind them, unable to cope in particular with the reborn Bobby Zamora, and United could have no complaint about suffering the heaviest defeat by Fulham in their history. Had the rest of the team been on song, they might have been able to avoid that fate at the very least, but this was as discordant a performance as anyone could remember.
Even with what was theoretically an extra man in midfield, the champions never exerted a grip. Paul Scholes' admirers had been hoping this would be the day he recorded his 100th League goal but instead his afternoon went from bad – the wild early tackle on Damien Duff – to a worse error in allowing Danny Murphy to dispossess him and score the opening goal. Murphy, of course, makes a habit of this sort of thing against United and will doubtless have received congratulatory texts from his old Liverpool mates, grateful for any distraction from their own plight.
With Ryan Giggs one of 10 players unavailable – seven of them defenders – there was no significant cavalry charge to turn the tide of battle, substitutes Dimitar Berbatov and Danny Welbeck looking almost as ineffective as Michael Owen had been. Zamora thumped his 10th goal of the season, half of them in the past four games, then used his superb chest control to set up Duff for the third.
Ferguson's aim has always been to stay in contact with Chelsea by the turn of the year. To do that he will need victories at Hull and at home to Wigan as a minimum, before thoughts turn to the FA and Carling Cups. "There's no light at the end of the tunnel," he said of the injuries, admitting to a "fragility" in defence that they have caused.
The United manager had been gracious in defeat, revealed Hodgson, who is long enough in the tooth to temper his own delight. "We played against an extremely weakened Manchester United," he said. "We were anxious not to give them time and space and the whole team did that."
Since starting two years ago at Craven Cottage with three successive defeats, leaving Fulham five points from safety in the bottom three, Hodgson has overseen 70 subsequent League games, taking exactly 100 points. His net expenditure is under £20m but the squad are on course to better last season's 53 points, which earned a higher League position than ever before and European football.
Until recently the cumbersome Europa League had extracted a heavy toll, Fulham failing to win in six games immediately after a midweek engagement in it, but even that has been righted with Premier League victories after defeating CSKA Sofia and Basle. Asked to speculate on how much further the team can go, however, Hodgson's wise old head again prevailed, with the analogy of an elastic band: "you stretch it too far and it breaks". Rather like United's defence.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hangeland, Hughes, Konchesky; Duff (Greening, 77), Murphy (Dikgacoi, 80), Baird, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora (Nevland, 90). Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Riise, Etuhu, Smalling.
Manchester United (3-5-2): Kuszczak; Fletcher, De Laet (Fabio, 58), Carrick; Valencia, Anderson, Gibson (Berbatov, 58), Scholes, Evra; Owen (Welbeck, 72), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Park, Tosic, Obertan.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Scholes.