Manchester United edged out battling Fulham in an Old Trafford thriller. Ji-Sung Park’s deflected shot and Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick put United two ahead inside 13 minutes. Brian McBride hit back for Fulham with a fine header eight minutes later, but Louis Saha added United’s third within seconds in controversial fashion. Ruud van Nistelrooy was offside in the build-up, and even though Heidar Helguson’s goal gave Fulham hope, Ronaldo’s late strike sealed victory.
It capped a day of frustration for Fulham boss Chris Coleman, who was sent from the dug-out for his protests after Saha’s goal. United got an early slice of luck to take the lead after five minutes when Park’s tame shot took a wicked deflection off Carlos Bocanegra and left Fulham keeper Antti Niemi wrong-footed. And Sir Alex Ferguson’s side doubled their lead eight minutes later when Ronaldo’s 20-yard free-kick deceived Niemi after Fulham debutant Michael Brown fouled Saha. It was harsh on Fulham, who had opened brightly, and it was no surprise when they pulled a goal back after 21 minutes.
Liam Rosenior’s inviting cross from the right was met by McBride, who escaped Gary Neville’s attentions to power home a fine header. Fulham were furious a minute later United restored their two-goal advantage in controversial fashion. Van Nistelrooy was clearly offside as he turned and forced Niemi into a save, and the ball fell for Saha to slide in a simple finish. Fulham boss Coleman was angry and debated the point with such ferocity that he was eventually sent from the dug-out. But his side were refusing to buckle and continued to threaten United – fighting their way back into contention nine minutes before the interval. Wayne Bridge did brilliantly to deliver a far post cross, with Helguson rising to score with a header that Van der Sar should have kept out.
Fulham were forced into a change at half-time, with new boy Brown limping off with a hamstring injury, to be replaced by Tomasz Radzinski. United were desperately vulnerable at the back, and Van der Sar needed to produce a crucial block from Steed Malbranque. Ferguson attempted to shore up a shaky United display after 68 minutes by sending on Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic for Park and Neville. Fulham were pushing for an equaliser when United struck with five minutes left to end the Cottagers’ resistance. Niemi produced a stunning save from Van Nistelrooy, but the ball fell for Ronaldo to lash home convincingly.
Set the ball rolling for United with a goal and his all-round display of energy, guile and tenacity helped cover up MU’S obvious deficiencies in defence.