In Pictures: Rooney masterclass leads Manchester United to victory over Fulham
Manchester United 3 Fulham 0
Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his programme notes was that he has set his side "a title target – to win every game between now and the end of the season!"
Note the exclamation mark. It suggests that this little pact is just a bit of training ground fun, made in jest like the goal-scoring bets he'd once have with Cristiano Ronaldo and the talk he'll probably soon have with Wayne Rooney about him scoring 42 goals this season. "I don't know about that but I'm not putting it beyond him," Ferguson said of that particular target last night.
But there's nothing jovial about the sight of United at present. Their eight-game run-in, with Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City all ahead, makes Ferguson's challenge a particularly formidable one in a season in which any side can upset another – and will continue to do. But they are title challengers who have quietly gathered the momentum of a juggernaut – eight wins, two draws and the loss at Goodison Park since Roy Hodgson's side dealt them a 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage in late December.
In Rooney, two goals the richer and now just 10 away from Ronaldo's 42-goal haul of two years ago, they possess a player whom Chelsea will need all the properties of a brick wall to stop when the sides meet here on 3 April.
As his side climbed back ahead of Chelsea by two points, with a goal difference which is four better, Ferguson also declared last night that he expects this title race will be the closest ever. But that is what we thought precisely 12 months ago, when Rafael Benitez's resurgent Liverpool smashed United 4-1 at Old Trafford, leaving the club so wounded that their place on that "fucking perch" that Ferguson once talked of looked as immutable as ever.
United chose yesterday to commemorate the very first game on their hallowed Stretford turf, against Liverpool, a century back. The script of that day's one- penny match programme, which was distributed with yesterday's match magazine, belonged to different times. "In their leisure moments our players have for their use a fine gymnasium, billiard or reading room and in the latter we may have our chaps preparing [to become] barristers or MPs," it read. A scenario almost as outdated as Benitez putting one over on Ferguson.
Fulham were a tired side who, just as Hodgson had predicted last spring, seemed overwhelmed by the demands of undertaking a Europa League programme on a relatively small squad. So war-weary were Hodgson's players that he gave Simon Davies and Damien Duff a job-share, fielding each for 45 minutes. But nothing should detract from the way United strolled through a team who have beaten them in consecutive league fixtures beside the Thames.
Rooney's finishing was sublime – an elegant side-footed finish from Nani's cross fewer than 30 seconds into the second half, then a sharp swipe with the in-step from Dimitar Berbatov's 84th minute assist – prompting the Bulgarian to satisfy that appetite football has for "world's best" tags. "I think he is the best in the world and he is still so young," Berbatov said. "I've just told him many times – just stay healthy and you can achieve anything."
Ferguson considers Rooney a certainty for PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year. "You can't ignore his form and I think he has a great chance of winning both," the manager said. But Berbatov's goal, a brave header to convert substitute Park Ji-Sung's fine cross a minute from time, was the most deserved of the afternoon. This has been another season when the Bulgarian's languid style and self-professed preference to be a provider rather than a finisher has called his contribution into question, but on days when the going is easy he looks like a world best, too. That word "assist" does not do justice to the way he took down a 30-yard pass, nutmegged Nicky Shorey and raced beyond Chris Baird to set up Rooney's second.
Normal service was also resumed here from Rio Ferdinand, unruffled and frequently stepping up from defence to distribute, though there were echoes of the Fernando Torres v Nemanja Vidic clash of last March when the Serbian was deceived by a long ball flicked on by Erik Nevland on 74 minutes and found himself chasing Bobby Zamora's shadow towards United's goal as Fulham scented an equaliser. Vidic placed a fine recovering tackle, though Torres will be a different proposition. Games can turn on moments like that.
Fulham needed two immaculate saves by Mark Schwarzer to save them embarrassment and Hodgson, who will learn today whether the blow to the chest which forced Brede Hangeland has caused damage, did not even offer conjecture on Rooney's value on the day when Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon mischievously suggested he was worth £100m.
"I think it's fairly pointless for me to waste everyone's time here by saying that I think Wayne Rooney is an excellent player because you can get that from the man in the pub," Hodgson said. A point of classic simplicity about a player at whose feet the course of this season now rests.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville (Fabio, 87) Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Park, 73) Fletcher, Carrick, Nani; Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), C Evans, Fabio, Obertan, Diouf, Gill.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland (Greening, 63), Shorey; Gera, Baird, Murphy, Davies (Duff, 45); Zamora, Dempsey (Nevland, 72). Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Okaka, Nevland, Stoor, Greening, Dikgacoi.
Referee: M Jones (Chester).
Booked: Man Utd Valencia; Fulham: Murphy.
Man of the Match: Berbatov