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Ferguson: We got lucky

IN HIS front room on the outskirts of Manchester, you imagined Roberto Mancini leaping to his feet and hurling animated obscenities at a TV set -- brandishing an imaginary red card, even -- his own acute sense of victimhood compounded.

Perhaps, as Fulham manager Martin Jol said last night, the refusal of an 89th-minute penalty against Manchester United's Michael Carrick for a challenge on Danny Murphy belonged to the fear which Old Trafford instills in referees.

"You have to be brave to give a penalty away at Manchester United," Jol said, acidly. Perhaps this is also what Mancini has described as that indefinable "five-yard" advantage United hold over their rivals.

United's shaky 15 minutes at the end of this game suggested that the last six weeks of the season may wear some nerves, but the lasting impression was that after a season of sufferable lows, the champions' inexorable march towards the finish is taking on an air of irresistibility.

Since their first defeat in a decade at St James' Park 82 days ago, United have collected 28 points from a possible 30.

Even Alex Ferguson admitted late last night that it had been a let-off when referee Michael Oliver waved away appeals after Murphy ran into the United area.

"Yes, Michael has caught him. I don't think it's a stonewall but it may have been a penalty. It was certainly a claim," said Fergie, who countered with the far more marginal claim that Stephen Kelly handled Patrice Evra's 40th-minute cross.

But the bigger picture is about United grinding on and on. They win games 1-0 in a way that Manchester City often don't, and there was a mixture of menace and intent in their manager's voice when he articulated what this kind of victory signifies.

"Over the years, I don't know how many times I've said to you 1-0, what does it mean?" he said.


"It means championship form. I don't mind the 1-0s. It tells you we're determined, we're going to do the right thing.

"We know there are no easy games. The experienced players know that. The crowd still don't know it. They've watched us for a hundred years but still get nervous when we don't finish teams off."

It had looked like that kind of night, almost from the start. Ferguson still can't quite get the insuperable energy of United's Europa League conquerors, Athletic Bilbao, out of his head.

He revealed last night that he had discovered some of the Spaniards ran 12km during United's 2-1 defeat in Spain two weeks ago, though Fulham's strategy did not match that Basque intensity.

The visitors certainly lined up as a five-man midfield on paper but it was a flat back seven at times, the limit of Jol's ambition being to soak up all the pressure United could pile onto them.

"When a team sits in like that, they are difficult to break down," said Fergie.

His side flickered with occasional menace, corralled largely by Wayne Rooney, and seeking Antonio Valencia's right flank as the favoured means of entry.

But Fulham's rare first-half excursions into United territory actually looked the more likely to yield something, given the greater space that they found.

Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé were sharp; Fulham were wise to get them into possession and the American brought two smart saves from David de Gea.

The groans of frustration were issuing around Old Trafford before United smashed though the barricades on 42 minutes.

Centre-half Brede Hangeland, otherwise excellent, missed Ashley Young's cross from the left and Jonny Evans showed presence of mind to seek out Rooney for the striker's 11th goal in nine games.

But it was when Rio Ferdinand left the field gingerly that the vessel began to creak. Goalkeeper De Gea also fell heavily on his hand after one punch clear.

Then came that let-off.

Six weeks is a short lifetime by this season's standards but the table and the fixture list are all that count. Both look good for United.