Sunday, February 3, 2013

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Manchester United 1 - Fulham 0

Bruce Springsteen - Darkness on the Edge of Town
Photo by pcutler on Flickr

It may have been a stroll in the park at home versus Fulham in the FA Cup a week ago, but surely Sir Alex and his crew expected a more difficult encounter in Saturday's late fixture at Craven Cottage, if only due to the more intimate and louder atmosphere at Fulham's home ground. Despite these expectations, things began appealingly enough for the visitors, as Patrice Evra rocked the top of the Fulham goal bar amidst a flurry of United opportunities that ultimately went begging at the seven minute mark. But if the Red Devils looked threatening from the outset, Fulham were no slouch, either: John Arne Riise tested United 'keeper David De Gea from long range with a well struck, dipping shot, and Bryan Ruiz offered Evra the sincerest form of flattery by testing the goal post at the opposite end.

The opportunities for scoring continued fast and furiously throughout the opening twenty minutes, with both defenses appearing to take the first shift off.  While Wayne Rooney had to be disappointed not to have found the scoreboard, it was the newly mohawked Nani who carried much of the early play for the men in Red.

Rooney's poor luck continued as afternoon wore into evening, and England boss Roy Hodgson saw his top dog bang the post -- the third time the visitors had tested the Cottagers' woodwork rather than the strength of the net. If Robin Van Persie's threat to this point in time had been kept largely in the dark, so soon was everyone else -- the lights at Craven Cottage deciding to take some time off and channel their own inner Bruce Springsteen near the 42 minute mark, leaving a darkness on the edge of town, as well as at the stadium on the bank of the Thames.

The real half intervened shortly thereafter, and a newly determined United side strode out in search of an opener. Van Persie used his head to test Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and open the second half opportunities, and although it appeared the visitors were turning the momentum in their favor, the chances in front of goal bubbled up more infrequently than they had in the first half.  Rafael blazed just over the bar after a fine lay off from Rooney, but by the hour mark the scoreboard remained stubbornly stuck at nil for both sides.

Chris Baird blocked Nani's shot in the box with only Schwarzer to beat, and shortly thereafter Sir Alex opted to make a change on the opposite wing, bringing in super-sub Javier Hermandez for a largely ineffective Antonio Valencia.  The move necessitated the switch of Nani to the right flank, with Rooney dropping to the left and Chicharito partnering Van Persie up top.

Initially, at least, the move did more to perk up the home side. Fulham responded with a flurry of chances as the game turned seventy minutes old, with an Ashkan Dejagah header just off target and a like effort from Ruiz being cleared off the line by Rafael. And as the clock aged further, the United lineup took on a similar composition, with Ryan Giggs replacing Tom Cleverly.

Ultimately, though, the goal that separated the two sides on 78 minutes came from the newfound United shape and from the one source that most deserved it most based on his body of work for the evening: Wayne Rooney, playing from the left and offering an exquisite finish to cap off a 35 yard run and send the visiting fans into a state of exultation.

But if United were ahead, the game was not yet done and dusted. While Fulham continued to threaten the United goal, Sir Alex responded with an offensive move of his own -- trading Nani for Danny Welbeck. The United defense stood firm with some assistance from the offense, with even RVP being called into action to head a ball off the line in stoppage time.  Surviving a tension filled free kick and a minute and a half more of stoppage time than was originally signalled, United stood resolute at the end.  If Sir Alex was happy for the shutout, he would have ben no less pleased afterward to see the team's lead in the table, ballooned for the moment to ten points over their closest rivals.  

This is farlieonfootie for February 3.

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