Manchester United gained a point at Craven Cottage on a day when Fulham threatened yet another win on home soil. While United controlled the first half, the home side overran Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in a pulsating second period, with the Reds grateful for a Paul Scholes’ wonderstrike and yet another own goal to share the spoils.
With his glass half full – United had lost on the previous two visits to Fulham’s picturesque West London ground – Ferguson was magnanimous, declaring that Mark Hughes’ side fully earned its draw. Indeed, while Nani missed a late second half penalty that would surely have sealed a United victory the home side merited a point in the weekend’s most vibrant Premier League encounter.
“In fairness, I think they deserved a point because they played very well in the second half,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“The first half belonged to us. Their goalkeeper made a couple of good saves, which could have put us in a comfortable position.
“But in the second half they upped their game and played better than us, you’ve got to give credit to them, they deserved their point.”
Not that United settled for a draw on a rare occasion that Ferguson chose to deploy two strikers away from home. This is especially true at Fulham, which now fully deserves its elevation to the upper echelons of the Premier League. With Wayne Rooney sidelined by a stomach bug, Ferguson selected Javier Hernández for his first United start alongside Dimitar Berbatov in United’s attack.
The risk, of course, in deploying two central midfielders is that United – with Scholes in fine form but a slave to his 36-year-old legs – suffers when the opposition is able to increase the tempo, with or without the ball. Hughes, unlucky to lose his job at Manchester City last season, has built a reputation based on workaholic teams. On the second half’s evidence, his Fulham side is no different.
The late flurry of action that brought United a second half lead through Brede Hangeland’s 84th minute own goal, Nani’s missed penalty moments later and then the Norwegian defender’s towering last-gasp header for the equaliser followed a high quality game in which United’s defence looked anything but secure.
Indeed, Fulham’s greater adventure in the second half built on the increasingly peripheral Scholes and Darren Fletcher in the centre of United’s midfield, whom were frequently outnumbered as the home side increased its tempo.
It’s the risk that United runs as the season progresses with Scholes unable to compete at both the weekend and midweek once the Champions League begins next month.
Yet Ferguson’s side had dominated the opening 45 as Scholes played with the same time and space that Newcastle United had afforded the player Zinedine Zidane describes as the complete midfielder. That the ginger prince blasted home United’s opening goal on 11 minutes surprised few.
United failed to put Fulham to the sword though, creating and failing to take a score of chances before the break, with Berbatov guilty of failing to stamp his authority on the match and Hernández shooting wastefully high when presented with his first clear opportunity of the match.
With United’s dominance survived, Fulham’s equaliser on 57 minutes was rich reward the enterprising football the home side brought to the game, precipitating a strong last 30 minutes for the home side.
Still, with Jonny Evans clearly wrong side for Fulham’s first equaliser, and Nani failing to convert the late penalty it is the devil in the detail that Ferguson may come to regret from United’s first dropped points of the season.
“When you get the chance to seal the game with that penalty you should be taking it,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“It was a missed opportunity and it galvanised them, got the crowd up and they scored the equaliser.”
“When we got that second goal I thought ‘we’ve escaped here’ but to miss a penalty kick to make it 3-1, you’re throwing two points away there I’m afraid.”
In that Nani was culpable but the real concerns lie elsewhere in Ferguson’s side.