WHEN the time comes to hand out football's version of the Oscars, Wayne Rooney will, according to Alex Ferguson, be a "certainty" for every individual prize going -- but this was one of those afternoons when Dimitar Berbatov, without breaking sweat, threatened to steal the show as the best male in a supporting role.
There were another two goals from Rooney, his 31st and 32nd of this extraordinary season, but that seems to be such a matter of routine for Manchester United these days that the eye was drawn instead to the performances of Berbatov and Nani, players who have often looked inhibited on the Old Trafford stage but whose touches of class ensured that Fulham's resistance was broken.
There is an inherent danger in reacting to every positive contribution from Berbatov or Nani by declaring that the penny has dropped, but what is certain in both cases is that those contributions have been more frequent in recent weeks. Neither is operating on the same level as Rooney -- and it is legitimate to ask whether any player in the world is doing so right now -- but this was an afternoon when, with Fulham defending obdurately in the first half, he could not have got by without a little help from his friends.
The decisive moment of the game came 30 seconds into the second half, when Nani set up Rooney for the goal that broke the deadlock, but the defining moment came with six minutes left, when Berbatov laid on the second. There seemed to be nothing on for United as the ball dropped out of the sky, but Berbatov took it down beautifully and sauntered between the challenges of Nicky Shorey and Chris Baird before presenting Rooney with the type of opportunity that cannot be missed by a player at the peak of his powers.
Berbatov claimed a goal after that, an uncharacteristically determined diving header from Park Ji Sung's cross, but it says everything about his mentality that he reacted to questions about it by saying that he preferred the assist for Rooney. Asked by United's television station whether his goal had come as a relief, the Bulgaria forward replied: "Why do you always ask me that question? I try to assist more. I prefer the assist I gave to Rooney than scoring."
Berbatov seemed to be talking about the finesse of the second goal, rather than its importance compared with the third, so it is worth questioning whether such an attitude is a good thing in a £30.75m centre forward. There was a time when Rooney seemed to think in such terms, but it is since turning himself into a great goalscorer, as distinct from a scorer of great goals, that he has elevated himself on to an altogether higher plane.
When United succumbed to a comprehensive 3-0 defeat by Fulham at Craven Cottage on December 19, there were few indications that Rooney was about to burst into life in such spectacular fashion. He had improved on his goalscoring output from previous seasons, but his next game, away to Hull City, proved to be the start of a remarkable sequence in which he has scored 17 goals in 18 appearances and transformed himself into the type of player who goes on to the pitch expecting to score and, more often than not, does so.
The frustrating thing for Fulham is that they seemed for a time to have succeeded in neutralising the threat of Rooney. In the first half, as Danny Murphy and Baird asserted themselves well in midfield, United's threat had come primarily from Nani and Berbatov and, as Rooney made his way towards the dressing room at the interval, he was taking his frustration out on referee Mike Dean.
At half-time, Ferguson told his players to "speed up their play", but he could hardly have imagined that they would score so soon after the restart. Against AC Milan on Wednesday they had scored 59 seconds into the second half, Nani setting up Rooney, and here the same two players combined to strike within 30 seconds. Berbatov headed the ball on, Rooney spread the ball wide to Nani and when the winger passed the ball into the space for his team-mate to run on to, Rooney obliged with a side-foot shot that beat Mark Schwarzer.
It was a little harsh on Fulham. For all Roy Hodgson's fears of fatigue, after they lost 3-1 away to Juventus in the Europa League on Thursday evening, they had competed well in the first half and might even have taken the lead had Bobby Zamora not attempted an impudent left-foot volley from Murphy's pass in the 38th minute, when perhaps a more prosaic finish was called for.
United played with greater freedom after taking the lead, but when Baird's pass was touched on by ex-Red Devil Erik Nevland with 15 minutes remaining, leaving Nemanja Vidic out of position, Zamora went through on the United goal for a second time. For a moment a goal looked certain, but Zamora hesitated, with the ball on his left foot, and Vidic got back to produce what Ferguson called a "fantastic tackle".
In that moment, Fulham's hopes of an equaliser came and went. Nine minutes later Berbatov produced his moment of magic to set up Rooney and, with one minute left on the clock, Park swung in an excellent cross for Berbatov to score his 10th goal of the campaign.
Whatever the Bulgarian's response in the post-match interviews, he looked relieved to have his name on the scoresheet, having missed a couple of chances before then.