Pressure transferred to Gunners ahead of their Sunday kick-off against Blackpool as dominant Red Devils tick off another fixture on march to end of season
Arsenal may have two games in hand but the Gunners would have felt their title tilt slip ever further away after a dominant performance from Sir Alex Ferguson's men. Anderson and Valencia were the star attractions, with the off-colour visitors taking until past the hour mark to seriously threaten.
The hosts made eight changes to the side that defeated Chelsea 1-0 in the Champions League on Wednesday night. League top scorer Berbatov was tasked with replacing the suspended Wayne Rooney, while Brazilian midfielder Anderson returned after a two month injury lay-off.
Ex-United star Mark Hughes made just one change to his Fulham team that defeated Blackpool 3-0 in the league last Sunday. On-loan Chelsea youngster Gael Kakuta was drafted in for the injured Damien Duff on the left wing after he suffered a knock to his Achilles tendon.
With Old Trafford baked in sunshine, both sides started with a spring in their step. In the fourth minute, a dangerous cross from Valencia was cleared to Nani on the edge of the Fulham penalty area and his driven effort was deflected to safety.
Up the other end of the pitch, Bobby Zamora was unable to replicate his exploits from the victory against the Tangerines when presented with the best chance of the game in the eighth minute. An interception from Paul Scholes fell kindly to his path, but in space on the left side of the United area, he could only slice his shot wide of deputising goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak’s left post.
Jolted into life, United opened the scoring four minutes later through Berbatov. Once again, Nani was to provide the inspiration as his jinking run and one-two with Anderson on the edge of the penalty area found the Bulgarian – offside by the narrowest of margins – to slot his 21st league goal of the campaign past Mark Schwarzer.
United had the lead but the danger caused by full-back Carlos Salcido as he bombed forward brought a nervous looking assistant manager Mike Phelan to the touchline. The 48-year-old’s nerves were nearly settled in the 19th minute after a dart from Berbatov out on the right wing found Anderson in space inside the Fulham penalty box, however, he was unable to repeat his scoring antics from the midweek reserve victory against Manchester City and screwed his shot past Schwarzer’s left stick.
No Rooney no problem | Berbatov opens the scoring at Old Trafford
The league leaders now finally took a hold on the game and twice went close to doubling their advantage. An exquisite flick from Valencia on the edge of his own area floored Salcido, and his length of the pitch one-two with Darron Gibson led to his shot being deflected for a corner in the 25th minute.
United kept Fulham pegged back and Cottagers old boy Chris Smalling should have found the back of the net three minutes later. A Nani corner-kick was nudged on by John O’Shea and the centre-back could only head over just three yards from goal.
United finally got the second goal their dominance deserved through Valencia in the 32nd minute. The winger nodded in on the goal line after an exceptional long-ball from Patrice Evra put the marginally onside Nani behind the Fulham defence 35 yards from goal.
A rush of blood to Schwarzer’s head saw the Portugal international flick the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper on the right-side of the Fulham box before his clipped cross was deflected into Valencia’s path by the prone Aaron Hughes for the simplest of finishes on the goal-line.
Valencia was again at the centre of things on the cusp of half-time when his mixture of close control and blistering acceleration saw him brush past Salcido and Brade Hangeland but his cross was poked away for a corner.
Erratic play from both goalkeepers saw the second period began in a shambolic way. First, Kuszczak was lucky to see two sliced clearances curve towards the safety of the touchline.
Opposite number Schwarzer wasn’t as lucky in the 48th minute as his pass under no pressure fell to Valencia in the centre-circle. The Ecuadorian unselfishly passed to Anderson, with the Australian given the chance of instant redemption with a smart save from his shot from 20-yards.
Valencia was again the supplier in the 55th minute after his cross was volleyed wide by Berbatov after it fell behind him. The Bulgarian began the move as he danced past Dickson Etuhu – with the help of a nudge from referee Michael Jones – but couldn’t provide the finish.
United now sat back and allowed Fulham to press, much to the consternation of the home support. The Cottagers thought they had got a crucial foot back in the game in the 62nd minute through substitute Eidur Gudjohnsen, but his sweet effort from 25 yards just crept past the beaten Kuszczak’s left post.
Fulham again threatened in the 73rd and 76th minutes. Zamora first curled a free-kick from the edge of the area narrowly wide, before the England international’s cross was blasted over by Chris Baird when the full-back should have done better.
Fulham's fightback proved too little, too late as United's resolve kept their two-goal lead intact. With advantage won at the top of the table, the pressure now moved to Arsenal ahead of their Sunday kick-off against Blackpool.
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