Manchester United cruised to a routine 2-0 home win over Fulham without ever really having to open the throttle. First half goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia proved sufficient to get the job done in the spring sunshine at Old Trafford.
Only skipper Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Antonio Valencia remained from the line-up that began the Champions League quarter final against Chelsea in midweek.
Berbatov, who came on as a substitute at Stamford Bridge, replaced the suspended Wayne Rooney. Chris Smalling came in to partner Vidic in the centre of defense against his old club, with John O’ Shea replacing the injured Rafael, while Darron Gibson and Anderson were given rare starts in midfield.
Tomasz Kuszczak, deputizing for Edwin van der Sar, was in action early as Fulham took the game to United in the first few minutes. In fact the match was less than a minute old when the Polish international keeper was tested by the on-loan Congolese Gael Kakuta. Then four minutes later a Mousa Dembele shot drew another smart save out of Kuszczak. On eight minutes, Bobby Zamora also had a chance but missed the target.
That early flurry was about as good as it was going to get for the visitors. With 11 minutes on the clock, a clever back heel from Berbatov sent Nani on a mesmerizing run that took three Fulham defenders out of the equation.
A swift one two with Valencia, and then Nani laid the ball on a plate for Berbatov who made no mistake, taking his season’s tally to 22. There was a hint of offside, but without the benefit of slow motion replays the officials can be forgiven for deciding that the Bulgarian was level with the last defender when the ball was played through.
On 32 minutes, United doubled their advantage with Nani again the provider. Having made space for himself, the Portuguese international chipped the ball across the face of goal. The ball took a fortuitous deflection off Fulham’s Aaron Hughes right onto the head of Valencia and into the net.
The Cottagers gave it a go after the restart and saw plenty of the ball, but could not seem to find that crucial final pass to unlock the United defense. Eidur Gudjohnsen was something of a nemesis for Manchester United back in his Chelsea days and Mark Hughes brought on the Icelander in the hope that he could work some magic. His fierce drive from outside the area on 62 minutes went just the wrong side of the post. No corner was given, but the video replay showed that it had been a superb fingertip save from Kuszczak that kept the ball out.
That was as close as Chelsea came despite enjoying 10 percent more possession than their hosts during the second half. United, by contrast, looked dangerous every time they broke forward. Gibson, Anderson and Berbatov all had decent opportunities, but failed to trouble Mark Shwarzer in the Fulham goal.
On 87 minutes Nani was brought off to a deserved standing ovation. He was the architect of both goals and very much the difference between the two teams on an afternoon when United had trouble getting out of second gear.
With the Premier League so tight from 7th downwards this year, Fulham are still not assured of top flight football next season, whereas Manchester United remain on course for a treble that at the start of the season appeared highly unlikely.
Arsenal Keep Up Pressure
Arsenal closed the gap at the top to 7 points with a hard fought 3-1 win at Blackpool. The Gunners also have a game in hand. First half goals from Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue put Arsenal in the box seat.
Gary Taylor-Fletcher pulled one back for the Seasiders six minutes after the restart, and the same player was unfortunate not to have been awarded a penalty when he was upended by Laurent Koscielny. A goal at that point would have given Blackpool heart and guaranteed a storming finish. As it was, Robin van Persie killed of the game with a third for Arsenal 14 minutes from time.
Blackpool remain in deep trouble with only a single point separating them from the bottom three.