As the first sun of spring broke over Old Trafford Wayne Rooney’s brace and a late Dimitar Berbatov header were enough to restore Manchester United to the Premier League summit. But as routine wins go, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men worked pretty hard the three points.
The trip to Old Trafford is never an easy task for Fulham with just two wins from 29 visits but with just three days rest after a demoralising loss to Juventus it was near impossible on Sunday.
While Hodgson’s well-drilled outfit frustrated the home side, once tiredness set in United took over to apply the pressure on Arsenal and Chelsea in the title race.
Man-of-the-moment Rooney added his 33rd and 34th goals of the season in a rare two man United attack.
Indeed, with at least four men piling forward at any given time United piled on the pressure in the early stages of the match with Ferguson’s team dominating both possession and territory.
Nani, seeing plenty of the ball in the opening half, created a chance for Berbatov from the left that the Bulgarian headed wide. Then Rooney and Berbatov had opportunities to open the scoring in quick succession before referee Mark Jones denied a good shout for a penalty after the Scouser fell in the area.
But Fulham are nothing if not well organised by Hodgson who the home manager praised thoroughly in his programme notes. While conceding territory Fulham rarely looked panicked in defence.
The visitors created little but Clint Dempsey’s long-range effort dipped just over Edwin van der Sar’s bar with Gary Neville grateful that his wastefulness with the ball wasn’t punished.
Any hope Fulham had of matching their win at Craven Cottage earlier this season ended less than a minute into the second period with Rooney converting Nani’s left-wing cross inside the area. Nani, who had wasted a number of good positions earlier, finally delivered early as Rooney stroke home his 24th Premier League goal this campaign.
Nani, Berbatov and then Rio Ferdinand spurned chances as United failed to add a second. Ferguson’s side almost paid heavily for their profligacy when the visitors’ top scorer, Bobby Zamora capitalised on former United striker Erik Nevland’s through ball only for Namanja Vidic to make the late block.
Then, with minutes to go Rooney added the second after superb work by Berbatov on the right. The Bulgarian, rarely noted for his dribbling skills, beat two men before delivering for United’s top-scorer to end any hope for the visiting side.
Then as the match ticked over into injury time Berbatov got the goal his performance deserved, nodding home from close range to take United top.
“At the moment it is looking like the tightest Premier League we have had. It is very tight,” said Ferguson, whose team now has a week’s rest before an Old Trafford fixture against Liverpool.
“You have to think about goal difference,” added Ferguson.
“We are only four goals ahead of Chelsea, I wish it was 14 to be honest, but at least it is in our advantage.
“I suppose the simple way for us and Chelsea to look at it is just to win all our games but life is never that simple.”
Perhaps not but with Rooney and Berbatov in this form United certainly has momentum in the title race.
Rooney’s double is almost par for the course these days but his partner Berbatov eclipsed him on Sunday. It was a rare start for the Bulgarian who has suffered from the occasional use of two strikers this season. His outrageous attempt at an overhead sailed miles wide but shows the value of his inventiveness.
More to the point, two up-front and a really attacking formation was always going to be too much for the visiting side.