Rooney hopes late strike can send title bid into overdrive
Fulham 0 Manchester Utd 1
Almost six years to the day after another title-turning afternoon on the banks of the Thames, Wayne Rooney delivered a late goal to leave Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson sniffing another championship.
On a chilly evening at Craven Cottage, Rooney's superbly taken 79th-minute goal was decisive, and deeply reminiscent of the goal scored on the same patch of grass by Cristiano Ronaldo in February 2007.
That goal, an 88th-minute winner in a 2-1 victory, sent United nine points clear of Chelsea and set them on a run that saw them land the title with two games to spare.
Rooney's winner in an efficient, indefatigable display from United was not quite so dramatic, but it felt no less important as it left United nine points clear of City.
This was a performance of champions-elect. In the past week, the top three have all played away from home against opposition in the bottom seven, but only United emerged with a win. After a night when the floodlights went out briefly, the outlook is gloomy for the chasing pack.
Having missed a host of chances, and been denied three times by the woodwork in the first half, United did not relent.
Fulham were spirited and occasionally threatening opponents, transformed from the shower that rolled over at Old Trafford in the FA Cup two weeks ago.
Brian Ruiz hit the woodwork, they had two efforts cleared off the line and David de Gea was busy in the United goal, but the visitors were not bowed.
Ferguson's attacking instincts were to the fore as he threw on strikers in search of a winner, first Javier Hernandez and then, a goal to the good and with three points to protect, Danny Welbeck.
By the end, all four of United's international strikers were on the field and the best of the lot, Robin van Persie, ended the game heading a goal-bound effort from Philippe Senderos off his own line.
The Dutchman has been at Old Trafford less than a season, but he already appears to have the spirit of the club and its manager in his bones.
The comparison with Ronaldo was not lost on either Rooney or Ferguson, with the forward, who has now scored 10 goals in his last 10 games, predicting it could send them on a similar roll to that of six years ago.
"I fancied myself to score," Rooney said. "It was a little bit similar to Cristiano's goal. After that goal we went on to win the league and hopefully that can happen again.
"We had a lot of chances, in the first half in particular. Sometimes you wonder if it's going to be your day, but we kept going and thankfully got the goal and the three points."
The goal was similar in execution as well as circumstance. Both came from the inside left channel, though Rooney had a little more help in his than Ronaldo.
Where the Portuguese picked up the ball inside the Fulham half and tore at the defence, Rooney was helped on his way by an error from Senderos. After a largely impressive afternoon the Swiss defender conjured a memory of his Arsenal days, missing a routine punt from David de Gea that he should have headed away.
Rooney, shunted left when Hernandez came on, broke onto the loose ball and, with Aaron Hughes retreating for fear of bringing the England forward down, worked the ball precisely into the bottom right-hand corner of Mark Schwarzer's goal.
It was reward, Rooney said, for persistence. "We had a lot of chances, in the first half in particular. Sometimes you wonder if it's going to be your day, but we kept going and thankfully got the goal and the three points.
"Rafael clearing off the line (from Ruiz) was a key moment. We had chances, too, but had to dig in and battle, and we did that to get a massive three points."
United captain Patrice Evra said the win was evidence of championship spirit.
"We have a winning mentality. This is the Manchester United spirit. That is the strength of the boss. It is what he instils in us every year. That is why we want to win every game."
Fuham's impressive German full-back Sascha Riether agreed. "United are champions if they can win games like that. It's just the same in Germany with Bayern Munich. Sometimes you you think you have done well, created chances but in the end, they win 1-0. That's a good team." (© Daily Telegraph, London)