The Red Devils sealed their first three points of the new Premier League campaign with victory over the Cottagers, but were made to work hard by Martin Jol's men
Damien Duff gave the visitors a shock lead from a clever set-piece with just minutes on the clock, but Robin van Persie’s brilliant equalizer got United back on terms only moments later. The hosts then appeared to be cruising after Shinji Kagawa and Rafael increased their lead but an own goal from Nemanja Vidic following confusion in the goalmouth provided a nervy ending.
Sir Alex Ferguson provided an early shock in making Wayne Rooney the most high-profile casualty from Monday’s loss to Everton, with Van Persie making his full debut as the forward’s replacement. Meanwhile, Nani missed out on a place in the squad entirely as Ashley Young and Valencia took their place on the flanks, with Rafael occupying the right-back role previously filled by the Ecuadorian.
Visiting boss Martin Jol made just one change following his side’s 5-0 win on the opening day, with 21-year-old Matthew Briggs coming in for the injured John Arne Riise at left back. American forward Clint Dempsey, who is still strongly linked with a move to Liverpool, was left out of the squad yet again.
United will doubtless have spoken of the importance of getting a good start as it looked to bounce back from defeat to the Toffees, but what followed certainly will not have been part of that script. Some clever work from Mladen Petric on the left-hand side tempted the returning Rafael into a needless foul just outside the box with just minutes on the clock. Bryan Ruiz stepped up to take the free-kick and his clever, low delivery caught the hosts’ backline napping and allowed Duff to capitalize as he side-footed into the bottom corner.
The Old Trafford crowd was unsurprisingly stunned into silence, but the Red Devils rarely dwell on such matters. Kagawa was the architect as United carved out a chance in immediate reply but, unfortunately for the Manchester side, the No.7’s cross was beyond the arriving strikers.
The hosts continued to push up against a Fulham team which dropped continually deeper seemingly in the belief that it had scored too early, and thus it was no surprise to see United get back on terms by just the 12th minute. A patient build-up from Ferguson’s men allowed Evra into space on the left and, though the full back’s poor cross was not particularly begging to be put in, debutant Van Persie did just that.
Quite how the Dutchman flicked the high, bouncing ball into the far corner on the half volley with such precision may well have been beyond the home fans – and Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal – but it is not something which seemed to overly concern them as they welcomed their latest acquisition with a rapturous celebration.
That strike settled the hosts into their usual rhythm of relentlessly attacking at Old Trafford, but the chances were not as forthcoming as Fulham began to tighten up and grow into the game. However, it was the Cottagers’ wastefulness in going forward which led to United’s next big chance in the 25th minute.
Briggs’ burst forward from left back ended in a poor pass inside and United’s subsequent counterattack, heavily orchestrated by Kagawa, allowed Young to sneak in behind Fulham’s defense only to shoot hopelessly over the bar from close range.
Though Sir Alex Ferguson will have been pleased with the comfortable nature of the game with halftime approaching, the determination of Fulham’s backline might have provided a concern until it was broken in fortunate circumstances. The visitors may have thought they had done enough to clear a corner, but Cleverley’s thunderous drive proved too hot to handle for Mark Schwarzer and provided Kagawa with the easiest of tap-ins on his home debut.
Though it had been handed a slice of luck with the goal, the manner in which United capitalized on it underlined the ruthless mentality of so many Ferguson sides. A fine passing move released Young on the left again and the former Aston Villa man dinked intelligently to the far post for the approaching Rafael to nod home and put his side 3-1 up.
That goal may have given the Brazilian defender confidence, but just moments later he evidenced the side of his game which so often attracts criticism. Alex Kacaniklic muscled his way beyond the full back on the left and, though Petric’s overhead effort from the subsequent cross was thwarted, only two incredible saves from De Gea could prevent Damien Duff and Petric again from getting the Cottagers back into the game.
The second half got underway on a more even keel with the Cottagers appearing to have been subjected to their own version of ‘the hairdryer’ at halftime, but United were equal to their visitors’ attempts to get further up the pitch in a quiet first 15 minutes of the second period.
The decreasing tempo appeared to suit the London outfit, and its increasing grip on the game was underlined as it grabbed an unlikely goal with 65 minutes on the clock. A hopeful ball into the box from the left-hand side tempted De Gea into a needless attempt at a punch, and the Spaniard found himself sandwiched between Vidic and Petric with the ball coming off the former’s heel and bouncing into the goal.
Fulham was clearly buoyed by the goal and almost got back on terms after a run from Dembele saw the Belgian find space in the box to force De Gea into an excellent reaction save. But that mini-revival appeared short-lived, with the introduction of Rooney and Welbeck from the bench in place of Young and Kagawa giving the hosts further impetus.
Rooney instead suffered a nasty gash just before the match ended, as Hugo Rodallega unintentionally landed on the striker's leg after a shot. After he was stretchered off, Fulham nearly evened the score, but Ruiz's header was saved away by De Gea, preserving the points.