The right-sided combination of Rafael and Antonio Valencia posed the biggest threat to Fulham’s defence as the pair showcased their blossoming partnership. The Brazilian right-back provided a constant overlap to Valencia, while the winger was more than willing to support the 21-year-old in his defensive duties. Both players have been in and out of Ferguson’s first-team this season, but a sustained run towards the end of the campaign could see the pair cement a regular starting spot, particularly Rafael who could benefit from Valencia’s outstanding form in 2012.
Mark Schwarzer was linked with a move to Manchester United a few seasons ago, and the Australia international ensured the home side endured a frustrating night, with Wayne Rooney’s first-half strike the only blotch in an otherwise impressive display. The 39-year-old, despite his age, rivalled David de Gea for agility, pulling off a string of saves at full-stretch. He palmed Ashley Young’s low curling shot past the post in the first half despite an obscured view. And after a relatively quiet opening period, he was called into action at regular intervals after the break, producing an outstanding double save in the 74th minute, blocking Young’s rasping volley before showing quick reactions to block Ryan Giggs’ follow-up effort.
Fulham weathered United’s bright start and gradually gained a foothold in midfield. Clint Dempsey, Mahamadou Diarra and Moussa Dembélé played intricate triangles, attempting to unlock an imperious United defence. Overtly, Michael Carrick and Giggs struggled to dissect the visitors’ rearguard, and Rooney dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball near the centre circle. Sir Alex Ferguson allowed Paul Scholes to have a rest for the Cottagers’ visit, but the United boss eventually called on the veteran midfielder in the second half. The 37-year-old has inspired the Red Devils to 25 points from a possible 28, and he has a vital role to play in United’s bid for a 20th league title.
Martin Jol swooped for Diarra in February as the Fulham manager bolstered his midfield options. The Mali international cost Real Madrid a reported £26m in 2006 but the 30-year-old had been a free agent since leaving Monaco last summer. Signed on a short-term contract, Diarra put in his best performance yet for Fulham, offering protection to the Cottagers’ defence. His passing, while not probing, is quietly effective, ensuring the visitors held onto the ball – vital for any side making the trip to Old Trafford. Perhaps not the most adventurous midfielder, Diarra’s first-half nutmeg on Rooney provided a glimpse of his flair.
In the 88th minute, referee Michael Oliver, who had enjoyed a relatively stress free assignment at Old Trafford, was forced make a key decision after Carrick looked to have brought down Danny Murphy in the United area. The Red Devils midfielder made contact with Murphy’s left foot and failed to get the ball, but the 27-year-old official waved away the Cottagers’ protests and Old Trafford support collectively breathed a sigh of relief. It was the wrong decision and Murphy the likely candidate to take the set-piece, the Liverpool midfielder would have relished the chance to score his fourth career goal at United’s home ground.
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