Reds pay price for Nani slip-up
Manchester Utd 2
Ferguson fury as missed penalty sees United lose early ground in title race
MIND the gap. The warning to Manchester United fans travelling on the Tube to Craven Cottage yesterday will have rung even more painfully in their ears on the way back to Euston. Chelsea lie two points clear at the top of the Premier League table and United must beware the ruthless champions stretching their lead.
They think it's all over before it's really started? Not quite but it almost feels like it. There's a very long way to go in the title race, nine months of negotiating injuries, suspensions and fluctuations of form, but Nani's missed penalty three minutes from time could prove hugely significant come the final reckoning in May.
The fixtures computer gave Chelsea a relatively smooth entry to the season. Their next three games are Stoke City (home), West Ham United (away) and Blackpool (home) before the major challenges of Manchester City (away) and Arsenal (home).
Chelsea have hit the ground running while United, their main rivals, stumbled yesterday. Alex Ferguson's side appeared in control when Paul Scholes gave them the lead but Fulham never gave up. Simon Davies equalised and when Brede Hangeland conceded an own goal, Fulham refused to surrender, Hangeland earning quick redemption with a powerful header.
The key moment came at 87 minutes with the score at 2-1. Damien Duff handled and Nani seized the chance to take the penalty. Nani knows best? Not here. Michael Owen was on the pitch and is deadly from 12 yards. He should have taken it. He has broken Mark Hughes' heart before, scoring late on against Hughes' Manchester City side last season.
As Owen watched, Nani placed his kick at the perfect height for David Stockdale, whose credentials to succeed Mark Schwarzer were confirmed with a vital save. When Hangeland then secured a deserved point for Fulham, Nani's profligacy looked even more expensive.
Afterwards, Ferguson maintained radio silence with the BBC, a policy of non-communication stemming from an old documentary about one of his sons.
Ferguson's continued feud brought a "disappointed'' sigh from the Premier League, whose fines are unlikely to trouble a multi-millionaire.
Ferguson really looks rather petty.
Such was his disappointment at the dropped points Ferguson was probably in no mood to talk to anyone, whether the man from Auntie or the Man from Uncle. Frustration would have flowed from the fact that Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov performed well with no reward, that United failed to exploit their 58pc possession and that Hughes, an old pupil, had made a point against him.
Ferguson's annoyance will also have stemmed from the sight of his side finishing so poorly after starting so well. Within 12 minutes they were ahead, following a corner won when Berbatov demanded an athletic save from Stockdale. Ferguson's players duly moved into their positions as Antonio Valencia addressed the dead ball.
Fulham busily began marking all insurgents to their area but they ignored Scholes lurking 25 yards out. All Fulham's attention was focused on the escalating danger on their right, on Valencia and Patrice Evra working the ball in to Berbatov.
As the Bulgarian laid the ball back to Scholes, Fulham realised to their horror what United were plotting. Too late. Scholes' right boot came down, thumping into the ball, sending it accelerating past Stockdale and stretching the net back on the stanchions. Arsene Wenger's right. Scholes does have a "darker side'' for opponents. He keeps hurting them with that right boot.
Amongst those watching Scholes and company at the Cottage was Fabio Capello, who refused to be drawn on whether he would be asking Scholes to return to the England fold. A call to Mikel Arteta, Everton's Spaniard who qualifies for England under residency rules, is also considered unlikely.
"No speak, no speak,'' blustered Capello.
Even with Scholes caressing the ball around, Fulham refused to be daunted. Calling on the strong team spirit built up during the Roy Hodgson era, Hughes' charges displayed grit and guile to keep United within range.
Hangeland neatly steered the ball away from Javier Hernandez. Stockdale saved well from Berbatov. Hangeland blocked Hernandez shot.
The home fans loved such defiance, raising the volume even more when Fulham started to threat Edwin van der Sar's goal. Bobby Zamora headed wide.
Van der Sar then somehow denied Dickson Etuhu, pushing the ball over from point-blank range.
Shortly before the hour mark, Van der Sar was beaten following a wonderful Fulham break down the right. Flicking the ball past Evra and spinning away in the same movement, Damien Duff dashed down the flank before teasing the ball behind Evans for Zamora to chase. Zamora's cut-back was perfection, angled towards Simon Davies. The Welshman, who briefly trained with United during his Peterborough United days, swept a low shot past Van der Sar.
United were rocked, the Cottage rocking. Ferguson sent on Nani, then Ryan Giggs and Owen. One Nani dead-ball brought joy, his 83rd-minute corner rebounding off Hangeland's shin and in before his spot of trouble. When Hangeland then headed Fulham level, the cheers will have been echoed up the Fulham Road. (© Daily Telegraph, London)