By Rasheed Abu Bakar
Manchester United was made to work hard for all three points against Fulham, as Wayne Rooney’s curled effort 11 minutes from time capped a dogged performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Craven Cottage.
Statistically, United has never lost when Rooney and Robin van Persie start together. While the Dutchman’s latest strike was three games ago (against Tottenham), Rooney has scored three in the last two games. Without a doubt, this is the most lethal partnership for United - if Van Persie is having an off day, Rooney pops up when it matters.
In the 2006/2007 season, on the way to the league title, United won this fixture with a wonder-goal from Cristiano Ronaldo; Rooney’s goal could very well come with a similar consequence. Having nothing to lose, Fulham attacked from the word ‘go’ and came close on a number of occasions.
Reinstated to the squad after a hamstring injury, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand were in the thick of action as they kept Fulham at bay. With former United man Dimitar Berbatov out injured, Martin Jol left Hugo Rodallega upfront with Bryan Ruiz, Damien Duff and Ashkan Dejagah in supporting roles.
Team effort and hard work pays off
While United has always maintained a good record at Craven Cottage over the years, wins never come easy in Southwest London. With the scores deadlocked in the 42nd minute, it was the floodlights that gave in first, bringing the half to a premature end. That did little in changing the game plan for both teams as Fulham and United came out in attacking moods. The home side had more possession, but was thankfully careless when it mattered the most.
Having been under much fire lately, David de Gea had a good run out, especially when he leaned back to tip John Arne Riise’s goal-bound rocket over the bar. The Spaniard also came out to collect crosses which would certainly do good for his and his defenders’ confidence. While he has room for improvement in certain aspects of the game, people often forget his shot-stopping prowess and his distribution from goal kicks. De Gea’s cat-like reactions and ‘Sat-Nav’ goal kicks are usually not picked up by the press.
While he is not bending in free kicks and banging in goals, Van Persie also pulls his weight in defending; United’s top hitman rose high to head out Philippe Senderos’ goal-bound header from a corner late on in the game. Football is a team sport and to have your top striker on the goal-line defending a corner speaks volumes about the desire to win and the team effort instilled in the squad.
Missing his twin brother Fabio, Rafael had his brother’s name sewn into his boots – probably to give more firepower to his already powerful lungs. Both he and Patrice Evra were additional wide men when United attacked – this has been one of the reasons United are doing so well this term, they defend and attack as a team. Everyone does their part.
Rooney the main man
He may not have contributed as much in terms of goals this season, but Rooney still remains one of United’s most important players. The 27-year-old does not have as big a bag of tricks as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo but what he offers Ferguson is the know-how to link midfield and attack, and I feel his most admirable asset is his ability to read the game.
When Evans floated the ball towards Javier Hernandez, Rooney kept his eyes on the ball and kept running forward. His instincts told him that the flight of the ball would most probably miss both Hernandez and the defender so if he kept on running, he would be through on goal. Within seconds of the ball leaving Evans’s left foot, Rooney found himself with the ball at the corner of the Fulham box.
Strikers with lesser confidence would have cut it back for onrushing midfielders but Rooney had only one thing in mind. His right foot curled the ball pass Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer into the bottom right corner.
With City dropping points at home to Liverpool, United now sit nine points clear. I’m not confident yet as there will be drama in the coming months for sure, but judging by the performances this season, Ferguson is making sure last season’s late meltdown is still fresh in the memory of the team to prevent them from thinking it’s all over now.
Rasheed's love for Manchester United started way back in the nineties after he watched a crazy old Scot named Sir Alex Ferguson run onto the sacred grass of Old Trafford, screaming and jumping for joy as Steve Bruce headed in the winner against Sheffield Wednesday in the 1992-93 season – easily one of the most influential games that spurred United to claim the the inaugural Premier League title. Since then, it has been Manchester United and nothing else.