Manchester United 3 -2 Fulham
Despite taking what was definitely a nervy but well deserved first win at home at Old Trafford the post-match Fleet Street footie propaganda machine was running at full tilt thanks to injured striker Wayne Rooney. Rooney, who had began the match on the substitute’s bench, saw it end with him carried off the field in a stretcher watching a sky of puffy gray-black cumulostratus as it poured rain on his day while the soaked crowd roared. With all kinds of scurrilous rumors being circulated in The Sun concerning Rooney’s endless partying this Summer and a newfound aversion to training, gossipy lips are making it known that Sir Alex Ferguson’s patience may have finally run out and the club are considering selling the Scouse wonder boy for the right price, to the right club. All this would of course become more or less moot had Rooney done much on the field after he was substituted on in the 70th minute but pant and puff. The general joy of a hard-won victory, however, was obliterated as the England national team’s only legitimate star suffered a deep gash just above the knee in stoppage time after a nasty accidental collision with the studs of Fulham’s new striker Hugo Rodallega.
Will the good Lord Ferg be worried? Not really. Having spent two seasons tweaking and tinkering with the talents of Rooney, the dilettante diva-like drama that is Dimitar Berbatov, the inconsistency of Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, the sheer unadulterated joy that has come from the arrival of Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa–each scoring fantastic goals in their official Old Trafford debuts–the Gaffer has toys! The Gaffer has options!
Indeed, especially in the first half, United created chance after squandered chance, to the point where Fulham were completely dominated. “I’m surprised it wasn’t 7-1 at half-time,” Fulham’s manager Martin Jol said after the game.
Yet United began the match like eleven red zombies. Perhaps their early sluggishness had something to do with the presence of United’s most famous fanatical fan, Olympic sprinting gold medallist Usain Bolt as he picked up a standing ovation and an honorary United shirt with his name on it. Thus, only three minutes in, nobody came even slightly close to marking Damien Duff as Bryan Ruiz clipped a low rolling free-kick across the goal mouth. and the ruddy cheeked, red-haired Irish veteran drilled the ball past an unsighted David De Gea to make it 1-0.
Just seven minute later, however, the inevitable happened early as a tidal wave of red shirts laid siege to the Londoners’ penalty box. And it was a thing of beauty. Robin Van Persie scored his first brilliant goal for his new club, clipping an exquisite left-footed half-volley past Fulham goalie Mark Schwarzer from an extremely obtuse angle after connecting to a Patrice Evra cross to equalize.
26 minutes later, having repeatedly held off attack upon attack from a speedy, determined, albeit impatient United, the Cottagers gave up a second. The next one was also a first, this time for Shinji Kagawa after Mark Schwartzer bobbled a hard hit shot from Tom Cleverley. The quick-footed Japanese was on the spot six feet out to tap home after a Van Persie corner. Caught trying to pour forward and render United’s speedy attack offside, Fulham’s defense was clearly a split second too late to fool the linesman, whose flag remained down.
Despite being 2-1 down, Martin Jol’s team showed faith in his tactics, as two minutes later, the same linesman raised his flag after Rafael Da Silva slammed home a Shinji Kagawa effort that rattled off Schwartzer’s left post. And despite a few excellent midfield steals and solo runs from a marvelous Moussa Sissoko, Manchester United kept up the pressure on their opponents like a relentless red tsunami. Then, four minutes before half time, the wolverine-like 5’5” Rafael was there again, leaping high at the far post past a clumsy Mladen Petric to power a ruthless header past Schwarzer from a sweetly hit Ashley Young cross.
Martin Jol must have said something galvanizing to his troops at half time, though. Having casually won by five goals last week against West Ham, they had left the field looking punch-drunk and bewildered, with only Petric, Duff and Dembele giving United’s goalkeeper David De Gea any trouble. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of making a series of brilliant saves, De Gea lost his concentration and put the game on a knife-edge.
20 minutes into the second half, with Dembele’s confidence growing in midfield as he repeatedly stripped bare the weak-tackling pairing of Tom Cleverly and Anderson, there was a terrible mix-up at the back. De Gea’s confidence is still clearly an ify fragile thing. And, though Nemanja Vidic was credited with the own goal that brought Fulham back into the game just after the hour, fault clearly lay with the goalkeeper for coming out for the ball and failing to claim it, punch it or deal in any way with it. Having left a tired Patrice Evra in the dust, Matthew Briggs put in a slow, sloppy cross that the young Spanish keeper should have easily scooped up in both hands. Instead, with the big, slow Mladan Petric between them, De Gea let himself be intimidated, body blocked as the ball hit Vidic on his heel and ricocheted into the United net to make it 3-2.
Tactically, from then on, United’s engine room stalled completely. And although Rooney and Danny Welbeck got a loud welcoming greeting from the home crowd, their arrival signaled the same dearth of creativity that took place a week previously at Goodison Park. Indeed, although Schwartzer made an absolutely fantastic save of a Rafael Da Silva bazooka, United were reeling. Giving the ball repeatedly to Moussa Dembele, Fulham’s Belgian midfield star had United staggering in the same way they had against Marouane Fellaini and, despite all the criticism, De Gea somehow managed to save twice from Dembele before his piece-de-resistance, punching clear a superb Bryan Ruiz header off the line in the dying seconds of the match.
Last but not least, in spite of the repeated disappointment that the ultra-erratic Cleverley and Anderson were in midfield and utter lack of aggression on the part of Michael Carrick as an emergency center back partner for Nemanja Vidic, there was worse news. Wayne Rooney went up in the air to retrieve a loose ball and collided with the Cottagers’ newly substituted striker Hugo Rodallega. Unfortunately, there was an accidental tangle and Rodallega’s studs caught Rooney in the thigh just above the knee. The resultant deep cut saw Rooney stretchered off and kept overnight in the hospital after surgery. Out for a possible two months, Rooney will surely have much time to contemplate his future and rest up for the tiring Christmas holiday section of the season.