Rooney puts Manchester United in driving seat
Manchester United 1 Fulham 0: In his front room away in Alderley Edge you imagined Roberto Mancini, leaping to his feet and hurling animated obscenities at a television set – brandishing an imaginary red card, even – his own current, acute sense of victimhood compounded.
Perhaps, as Fulham manager Martin Jol said last night, the refusal of an 89th-minute penalty against Manchester United's Michael Carrick for a challenge on Danny Murphy belonged to the fear Old Trafford engenders in referees.
"You have to be brave to give a penalty away at Manchester United," Jol remarked, acidly. Perhaps this is also what Mancini has described as that indefinable "five-yard" advantage United hold over their closest rivals. Their shaky 15 minutes at the end of this game suggested that the last six weeks of the season may wear some nerves but the lasting impression was that after a season of sufferable lows, the champions' inexorable march towards the finish is taking on an air of irresistibility.
Since their first defeat in a decade at St James' Park 82 days ago, United have collected 28 points from a possible 30. Eight wins from eight and now four games against bottom-six sides suggest that Manchester City, for whom Arsenal and Newcastle loom on the horizon, will need to be at their best to prevent this deficit growing before a fateful Manchester derby day dawns on 30 April.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted late last night that it had been a let-off when referee Michael Oliver waved away appeals after Murphy ran into the United area, Carrick's reaching left foot connected with the Fulham midfielder's own left boot and found none of the ball. "Yes, I think Michael has caught him. I don't think it's a stonewall but it may have been a penalty. It was certainly a claim no doubt about that," said the manager, who countered with the far more marginal claim that Stephen Kelly handled Patrice Evra's 40th-minute cross.
Jol was even remembering the Pedro Mendes goal which was disallowed after carrying a yard over the line here, during his days as Tottenham manager, seven years ago.
But the bigger picture is about United grinding on and on. They win games 1-0 in a way that Manchester City often don't and there was a mixture of menace and intent in their manager's voice when he articulated what this kind of victory signifies. "Over the years, I don't know how many times I've said to you 1-0, what does it mean?" he said.
"It means championship form. I don't mind the 1-0s. It tells you we're determined, we're going to do the right thing. We know there are no easy games. The experienced players know that. The crowd still don't know it. They've watched us for a hundred years but still get nervous when we don't finish teams off."
It had looked like that kind of night, almost from the start. Ferguson still can't quite get the insuperable energy of United's Europa League conquerors, Athletic Bilbao, out of his head. He revealed last night that he had discovered that some of the Spaniards ran 12km throughout United's 2-1 defeat in Spain two weeks ago, though the Premier League is a more supine environment and Fulham's strategy did not nearly match that Basque intensity. The visitors certainly lined up as a five-man midfield on paper but it was a flat back seven at times, the limit of Jol's ambition being to soak up all the pressure United could pile onto them. "It doesn't matter if you have 11 plumbers, 11 joiners or 11 footballers. When a team sits in like that they are difficult to break down," Ferguson remarked later.
His side flickered with occasional menace, corralled largely by Wayne Rooney, and seeking Antonio Valencia's right flank as the favoured means of entry. But Fulham's rare first-half sorties into United territory actually looked the more likely to yield something, given the greater space that they found.
Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé were sharp, Fulham were wise to get them into possession and the American brought two smart saves from David de Gea. The groans of frustration were beginning to issue around Old Trafford when United smashed though the barricades on 42 minutes. Centre-half Brede Hangeland, otherwise excellent, missed Ashley Young's cross from the left and Jonny Evans showed presence of mind to seek out Rooney for the striker's 11th goal in nine games in all competitions. It was his 17th in his last 17 and his 21st league goal of the season.
United commanded 70 per cent possession early in the second half but then proceeded to start "fannying", as Gary Neville memorably put it. Dembélé was isolated yet spirited enough to make a 15-yard run through the United midfield which Evans stopped.
When Murphy provided the ingenuity to loft a ball into the six-yard box with which Dempsey narrowly failed to connect, Ferguson was nervous enough to bring on Paul Scholes for Rooney, 12 minutes from time. But it was when Rio Ferdinand left the field gingerly, to be replaced by Chris Smalling, that the vessel began to creak. Goalkeeper De Gea also fell heavily on his hand after one punch clear. "David's ok. Rio's got a bit of stiffness. From time to time he gets this stiffness in his back," said Ferguson.
Then came that let-off. "I won't bet my money on it," Jol said of United's title claims. "We could have shocked them today. I feel Man City is a good team as well." Six weeks is a short lifetime by this season's standards but the table and the fixture list are all that count. Both look good for United.
Man Utd: DE GEA, RAFAEL, FERDINAND, EVANS, EVRA, VALENCIA, CARRICK, GIGGS, YOUNG, WELBECK, ROONEY
Fulham: SCHWARZER, J RIISE, HANGELAND, HUGHES, KELLY, FREI, DIARRA, DEMBELE, DUFF, DEMPSEY, POGREBNYAK
Substitutes: Manchester United Hernandez (Welbeck, 63), Smalling (Ferdniand, 74), Scholes (Rooney, 78). Fulham Ruiz (Frei, 67), Murphy (Diarra, 71).
Booked: Manchester United Giggs.
Man of the match Valencia. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Man United 60% Fulham 40%.
Attempts on target: Man United 19 Fulham 5.
Referee M Oliver (Northumberland).
Attendance 75, 570