Dimitar Berbatov grabbed his 22nd goal of the campaign, while Antonio Valencia’s impressive comeback from last year’s horrific leg break left him with a headed goal, and the opposition with twisted blood.
While the goals went to the Bulgarian and the Ecuadorian, Nani was the game’s standout performer, as he provided the two goals with impressive buildup play. After being snubbed on the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award, he seemed determined to show everybody just why he has become such an integral part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team this season. With nine goals and 18 assists in the campaign, his omission from the list seems to be down to his reputation for play-acting among his fellow professionals rather than any deficiencies in his levels of performance.
Ferguson made eight changes to the line-up that beat Chelsea in Europe in midweek, and while the likes of Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey worried United’s defence at times, there was never a point at which Fulham looked to have control of the match. Zamora wasted a glorious chance early on after he blazed high and wide, and Tomasz Kuszcak made a fine fingertip save in the second half (which went unnoticed by the referee), but Mark Hughes will have been frustrated that after such an impressive performance last week against Blackpool, his side were unable to trouble a United side that featured less seasoned players such as of Anderson, Darron Gibson and John O’Shea.
The first goal came after neat build-up play between the returning Anderson, Nani and Berbatov; the Brazilian found the striker with a long ball, and after tricky passing between the winger and Berbatov (who appeared marginally offside), the Bulgarian finished confidently for his 22nd goal of the campaign. This was Berbatov’s 17th strike in 13 games at Old Trafford, proving that while he (and United) may have struggled for form away from home this season, he remains a lethal presence in Manchester. This was also United’s 12th straight home win, and following six straight wins in all competitions, the Red Devils are hitting form and fitness at exactly the right time to launch an assault for trophies on three fronts.
For the second goal, Patrice Evra launched a speculative ball over the defence that Nani ran onto, and after Mark Schwarzer foolishly ran out to try and block the Portuguese winger off, Nani bore down on goal, and Aaron Hughes could only block his attempted chip into the path of Valencia, who headed home.
The performance of Chris Smalling against his old club was particularly strong; given that he only arguably lost his place to Rio Ferdinand in midweek due to Ferdinand’s experience, the young centre-back handled Zamora well, and coped well with being thrust back into the action after a brief spell on the sidelines.
While the key performances came from the more established players in United’s ranks, the victory highlighted United’s strength in depth; as Fulham struggled for a creative spark, Ferguson will be delighted that his consistent stars were ably backed up by an impressive supporting cast.