By Tony Mogan.
Courtesy of a wonder strike from Peter Crouch, Manchester United had the opportunity to restore a 3 point lead at the summit of the Premier League as they took on Fulham at Old Trafford last Monday night. Wayne Rooney sealed the three points with a decisive finish in the first half following a cut back from Jonny Evans in a game that wasn’t without controversy. Despite Rooney’s 29th goal of the season, United struggled to break down Fulham in what can be described as a careless performance where they failed to transfer long spells of possession into goals; still an important foot note with City ahead in the goals for column. But as they established a three point gap at the top (since reduced to two) with eight Premier League games remaining, United once again did what was required, with a performance that was far from glittering, but consummately professional.
1. United Ride Their Luck
In every Premier League season and in every closely fought title race, there are always moments that are looked back upon as being imperative as to who lifts the trophy and to who is left to despair at what could have been. Manchester United were undoubtedly gifted with one Monday evening, as Danny Murphy (of all people) burst through the United penalty area, and appeared to have his heel clipped by Michael Carrick. United had a penalty shout of their own dismissed in the first half when a marauding run from Patrice Evra resulted in a cross that also appeared to strike the arm of Fulham defender Stephen Kelly. Both decisions were waved on by 27-year-old referee Michael Oliver, as fans were left to ponder what impact the decision will have on the title race.
2. Jonny Be Good
The 24-year-old’s rise from fourth choice centre back and frequent target of the boo boys, to one of the finest in the league has been nothing short of fantastic this season. Monday night’s display was another seemingly flawless display; Evans was absolutely titanic in aerial duals, provided intelligent and perfectly timed interceptions and seamless distribution that can only be summed up by the numbers; Jonny Evans misplaced just 1 of his 88 passes, a 98% success rate. After picking up his first senior goal at Wolves in the previous game, Evans was found in the opposition area once again, expertly cutting the ball back for Wayne Rooney to smash in the game’s goal to add to his ever growing list of praises. Rio Ferdinand helped make it a difficult evening for Pavel Pogrebnyak as the two forced Fulham’s lethal hitman out of the game, but Evans’ dominance was there to see. The Northern Irishman has appeared in United’s central defence more often that anyone this season, and could find himself as an outside shot for Player Of The Season.
3. De Gea showing no signs of faltering
Not his busiest evening of the season, but David De Gea provided another assured performance as Manchester United’s number 1, picking up his third Premier League clean sheet in a row following composed performances against Wolves and West Brom previously. Criticism has been thrown in the direction of the Spaniard all season, and despite being inexplicability written off by pundits/writers etc who should really know better, De Gea has knuckled down and worked hard to become a dependable fixture in this United team. De Gea’s increasing tendency to come out and claim a ball rather than just punching it away is just one of the increasing number of signs that the 21-year-old is becoming accustomed to Premier League life.
4. Scholes missed in midfield
Fulham arrived at Old Trafford last Monday night with an admirable game plan of taking on the champions, as Clint Dempsey, Mahamadou Diarra and Moussa Dembélé enjoyed good spells of intricate possession throughout the game. United’s midfield combination on the night consisted of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, and while the duo played some neat football at times, they struggled to consistently impose themselves on the game. United’s inability to hold onto the ball in the midfield meant that Fulham were never totally out of it, and looked dangerous when they regained possession. Paul Scholes’ introduction in the second half came as no great surprise, and the 38-year-old’s involvement in the title run in is looking increasingly significant.
5. It’s a right wing thing – Valencia and Rafael
The marauding right sided combination of Antonio Valencia and Rafael Da Silva once again exhibited itself as one of the Premier League’s most dynamic right back/right winger combinations, as the blossoming partnership provided United’s most dangerous attacking opportunities on the night. The Brazilian was once again more than willing to join in United’s bombarding attack, providing an overlap for Valencia whenever the space provided itself, and the Ecuadorian was on hand to assist with defensive duties when Fulham pressed on the United goal. While Rafael is yet to permanently nail down the right back slot as his own (a circumstance that can largely be put down to a string of injuries and resulting lack of fitness) the energy, coordination and drive the incisive south American duo can provide from the right will be another key asset in United’s run in.
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