MAN UNITED 1, FULHAM 0.
If Manchester United fend off the challenge from their noisy neighbours and successfully defend their Barclays Premier League title, they may well look back on the scruffy home victory against Fulham as the defining moment of their campaign.
The Reds certainly had a stroke of good fortune on the night they opened a three-point lead at the top of the table as Fulham, even by Sir Alex Ferguson’s own admission, ought to have been awarded an 89th minute penalty.
Danny Murphy had broken clear when his left leg was caught by Michael Carrick who tried to cut out his burst into the penalty box, something television replays confirmed.
Referee Michael Oliver waved on play to the astonishment of Murphy and his Fulham team mates while there was a collective sigh of relief from everybody of a red persuasion.
Had Fulham snatched a late point and cancelled out Wayne Rooney’s matchwinner, his 28th goal of the season, it would have dealt a massive blow to United’s title hopes given this was regarded as a home banker.
Fulham manager Martin Jol said: “I felt it was a difficult decision and the referee has got to be brave to give a penalty at Manchester United.
“I think everyone in the stadium expected a penalty to be given and for Michael Carrick to be sent off. I don’t say that lightly as I regard Michael as a friend as he was my player at Tottenham.
“That is our only disappointment. We could have got a result as they were nervous at the end.”
Ferguson agreed there was contact and Fulham ought to have been awarded a penalty.
“There is no doubt Michael caught Danny Murphy, but we also had claims for a penalty when Patrice Evra’s cross was handled in the box. May be the referee was thinking of that,” he said.
Ferguson explained his only disappointment was that United didn’t finish off Fulham which would have avoided having to endure a nerve-jangling finish.
He said: “It’s a result for us and three points which is what we are after,
“I thought we played well for an hour and our passing was quick and decisive. All credit to Fulham who were determined defensively and sat in.
“When you play like Fulham did, you keep something in reserve and, when we wilted, they started to venture forward and we got caught on the break as we tired having put a lot of effort into the game.”
Ferguson added the game ought to act as a warning saying: “It was a great game and exactly what it is going to be like for the rest of the season.
“Teams will be battling to survive and will not want to be lambs to the slaughter.
“It doesn’t matter whether they are 11 plumbers, joiners or footballers, we didn’t finish them off and nearly paid the penalty.”
United went with the front pairing of Rooney and Danny Welbeck with Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov held in reserve on the bench.
For much of the opening half it looked as though it would be a frustrating night for the Reds against a Fulham side which had left Old Trafford with points only once in the previous 50 years following their victory of 2003.
Indeed, Clint Dempsey had two decent chances in quick succession for Fulham midway through the half, David de Gea saving well each time.
United’s most potent attacking threat came from left-back Evra whose spectacular overhead kick flew just past the upright while he also fired in a cross which was clearly handled by Stephen Kelly, though referee Oliver was unmoved.
The breakthrough was perfectly timed shortly before half time when Ashley Young’s deep cross from the left deflected off John Arne Riise to Jonny Evans at the far post. He cut the ball back to Rooney who fired high into the roof of the net from six yards.
United had chances to increase their lead early in the second half with Antonio Valencia and Young both forcing Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer into decent saves.
The second goal remained elusive as another chance went begging with little over 15 minutes left.
Young had his initial shot and follow up both saved by Schwarzer with the second running free to Rooney whose effort was blocked by Brede Hangeland.
United lived dangerously while only 1-0 ahead and they were lucky not to concede an 89th minute penalty when substitute Danny Murphy went down in the box after a challenge by Michael Carrick.
Replays suggested Carrick had clipped Murphy’s left leg to the astonishment of the Fulham player.
And the sight of an animated Ferguson on the touchline in the dying minute only served to underline
how unconvincing this United display had been.