Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Manchester United 3 - 0 Fulham

Manchester United moved five points clear at the Premier League summit thanks to a thumping 3-0 win over Fulham at Old Trafford.

Paul Scholes opened the scoring with his 97th Premier League goal, Dimitar Berbatov's 12th goal of the season made it two and substitute Wayne Rooney completed the rout with his first touch after a seven-match absence.

In addition, it is now 1,302 minutes and over 14 games since Edwin van der Sar conceded a top-flight goal.

However, the statistic that looks most noteworthy is 18 league titles - the same as arch rivals Liverpool. For that is what United seem increasingly likely to achieve after winning their match in hand on the Merseyside giants at a canter.

And, although they will meet more difficult opposition than Roy Hodgson's toothless bunch, it is hard to see how the Red Devils will relinquish their advantage in the remaining 13 games given they have now started scoring and no longer let any in.

If Van der Sar can keep Blackburn at bay for 89 minutes at Old Trafford on Saturday, he will eclipse the European record of Club Brugge stalwart Dany Verlinden, who went 1,390 without conceding a goal in 1990.

As expected, Rooney was named on the bench after missing seven games with a hamstring injury. However, Ryan Giggs did not even have that consolation as Sunday's man-of-the-match at Derby watched on from the stands.

And therein lies the problem for all United's rivals.

Rafael Benitez can only dream of being able to willingly leave out such stars and Chelsea are surely too far behind to have an impact no matter how aggrieved they might feel at Sir Alex Ferguson choosing his programme notes to write the Londoners off.

Although Fulham had no away wins and only three goals to their name, their results suggest an obduracy that might have caught United out. But that was not the case.

While not at their best, Ferguson's men were well on top when Mark Schwarzer offered the kind of gift not really needed but accepted all the same.

Scholes could probably bring out a DVD compilation of the goals he has scored from the training ground move that simply involves a team-mate dropping a corner into his path.

Typically, the former England star responded to Michael Carrick's invitation to shoot by launching a thunderbolt goalwards.

Schwarzer should have saved but somehow allowed the ball to squirm its way into the opposite corner.

The Australian is normally the most reliable of goalkeepers but it seemed he had been struck down by a sudden attack of nerves.

Failing to hold a Cristiano Ronaldo cross that bounced right in front of him, Schwarzer could only watch on helplessly as Berbatov steered the loose ball goalwards, only for Aaron Hughes to make the goalline clearance.

The Bulgarian was a conclusive winner next time the trio were in close proximity though. John O'Shea created the opportunity, continuing his run into the box after laying a pass off to Carrick.

Scholes provided the flick on that O'Shea toed Berbatov's way. Schwarzer and Hughes closed in, neither man made contact and the United striker gleefully tapped home.

Had Berbatov not followed Carlos Tevez in having a effort disallowed for a marginal offside decision, Fulham might as well have started making their way home at the interval.

Not that the visitors were likely to score twice against a team who last felt the sinking feeling of conceding a goal at the beginning of November.

Two brilliant passes from Scholes created a half chance for Berbatov to force Schwarzer into a good save, which at least gave the former Middlesbrough man something to cheer before his net was bulging again.

Rooney had only been on the field for two minutes after replacing Berbatov and had yet to touch the ball when Park Ji-sung let fly with a low cross-shot. He did not need a settling-in period though as he tapped home at the far post.

For a fleeting moment it looked as though Van der Sar would be picking the ball out of his own net as well, but Bobby Zamora spurned the gilt-edged opportunity.

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