Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Day in the Sun

photo by Nanagyeivia PhotoRee

Sir Alex gives Dimitar Berbatov a rare start up top today, putting him at the sharp end of a three-man attack that also includes Nani and Valencia on the wings. United's midfield also includes the returning Anderson, Gibson and Scholes, while the defensive core of Vidic and Smalling is partnered by Evra and O'Shea, with the Pole in Goal, Tomas Kuszczak, returning for one of his final appearances at Old Trafford before his expected departure this summer. 

It's a lineup that includes eight changes to the team that played Chelsea on Wednesday, and one that showcases United's extraordinary depth, with the bench consisting of Owen, Carrick, Chicharito and more. Rio Ferdinand is given the day off, and Wayne Rooney is suspended -- what freakin' what!! -- so two of United's most important players should be rested and raring to go for the big match on Tuesday.

It's the visitors, though, who are first to test the 'keeper, as Scholes is guilty of an early giveaway, and although Kuszczak spills Gael Kakuta's shot, he's able to quickly gather the rebound and snuff out the threat. United 's first test comes a few minute's later, as Valencia nearly picks out Berbatov, and Nani's blast of the rebound is deflected well over the bar.

The game is wide open early on, as players on both sides refuse to close down the opposition, and the midfield offers plenty of space.  Moussa Dembele and Bobby Zamora both have decent chances for Fulham, and the United defense looks a bit shaky in the early going.

It's a beautiful goal by Berbatov to open the scoring, but it's Nani playing architect, cutting throught the middle of Fulham's defense like a knife through a stick of butter that's been left outside too long in the bright Mancunian sunshine.  Berbatov may have been leaning slightly offside when Nani's ball lands neatly at his feet, but the Bulgarian makes no mistake with the finish, recording his 22nd tally of the year.

Berbatov's quality is shown again a few minutes later as he embarrasses Brede Hangeland while streaking by the Norwegian, but a wide open Anderson misses the opportunity to extend the lead by a country mile as he needlessly rushes the finish.  Although there are chances at both ends, the game is generally being played at a lazy pace, as if the two teams are intent on enjoying their day out in the sun. United look most dangerous on the counter-attack, swarming forward virtually every time they have the ball. Berbatov looks especially sharp, moving well with and without the ball, and his spell on the bench does not appear to have affected his confidence.

It's Nani who creates the game's second goal, as well, narrowly beating Schwarzer to a loose ball outside the box. His deft touch unlocks the goal, and when he lobs a soft and slightly deflected cross to Antonio Valencia, the Ecuadorian can't possibly miss from so close. It's 2-nil to the home side, and it looks as if the rout could be on today.

Nani is running Fulham absolutely ragged, looking virtually unplayable.  It's even more remarkable conisdering the Portuguese wideman is playing on the left of the pitch, which is not even his favored side. Berbatov, too, has found some incredible room on the pitch, putting the lie to his critics who claim he doesn't move well, and if United's passing was just a bit sharper, the lone front man could have a couple more goals to his name as the half draws to a close.

The second half opens in much the way the first half unfolded, with Fulham having a fair bit of the ball, but United looking the more dangerous of the two sides.  Anderson attempts to make amends for his earlier miss and tests Schwarzer from just outside the box, but the Australian is more than equal to the challenge.

Mark Huges is the first coach to alter his approach, bringing on Eidur Gudjohnsen for Demebele, but the moves changes little. With a half hour left in the action, though, Fulham think they've clawed one back as the net ripples on a Gudjohnsen laser-like strike, but it's the back netting that's shaken as the ball rebounds off the wall behind goal, and the Old Trafford faithful laugh in derision at their chagrined Fulham colleagues' false shouts of joy.

Darren Gibson side-foots a would-be assist from Nani, but in truth it's an opportunity the young Irishman should have put his rocket-like foot through, as the end product is saved easily by Schwarzer. Dickson Etuhu is swapped for Zoltan Gera as the Cottagers try to make it a contest, but once again the effect of the switch is little felt.

Vidic concedes a free kick to Kakuta right on the edge of the box in the 71st minute, but  Zamora is unable to even test Kuszczak from one of Fulham's best opportunities of the day. That's the cue for Michael Owen to replace Valencia, and it's a welcome sight to this viewer to see the Englishman gracing the pitch once again, with United reverting to a 4-4-2 to see out the game.

Chris Baird blows an unguarded shot over the bar for the visitors, and it's a reminder to the Reds who seem to have slipped momentarily into a somnambulistic state. Fabio is swapped for Ando on 77 minutes, with one Brazilian replacing another. Fulham offer their last roll of the dice with the introduction of ex-Red Jonathan Greening as Danny Murpy exits, but the outcome seems cast in stone today. The Reds are content to offer Fulham as much of the ball as they want, confident they lack the quality on the day to sufficiently trouble Kuszczak.

Michael Carrick offers Nani a few minutes of rest as the clock ticks down, but not before Owen shows a tantalizing piece of footwork in the opponent's box.  It's a comfortable day in the sun for United, and they enjoy a very untroubled performance before the pressure cooker on Tuesday. At the final whistle, the score reads United 2 and Fulham nil as the home side basks in the sun.

This is farlieonfootie for April 10.

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