On a night when their main title rivals Manchester City were disposing of Stoke City at the Etihad, the red side of Manchester maintained the pressure with an away trip to Fulham that could barely have been easier. Three first half goals saw them pull clear of an insipid and frustratingly inconsistent Craven Cottage outfit, before Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov completed the rout close to full time.
United surged out of the blocks and were one up inside five minutes with a goal that would set the tone for the rest of the half. Nani took the ball inside Fulham’s territory and moved effortlessly down the left wing, cutting the ball back into the box for Welbeck to ease home at the far corner. The most striking feature of the goal – United’s fluent passing play aside – was the lack of pressure from Fulham that allowed it: no midfielders, no defenders gave Nani even a hint of a tackle, and Welbeck’s finish looked more like the completion of a training ground exercise than a crucial moment in a top-flight league match.
United gained more confidence from the goal, and continued to move the ball effortlessly about the park. Michael Carrick was efficient in centre-midfield, starting attacks with excellent distribution to the wide men – and after Phil Jones was injured with a potentially fractured cheekbone and replaced by Ashley Young, United had four traditional wide men marauding the pitch with Young partnering Nani, Giggs and Valencia. Two of those, Nani and Giggs, secured the win before half time, with a flicked header and a deflected effort respectively to ensure the Fulham players trudged to the sheds surrounded by boos at the break. And rightly so: this tepid display has been seen too often this season from the men in white, and how it must infuriate their fans. The tempo and pressure that was so effectively used in the recent win against Liverpool was nowhere to be seen.
Coming out in the second half, Fulham finally found their feet. They played with far greater intensity as influential figures such as Clint Dempsey and the increasingly popular Moussa Dembele fought hard. When you’re 3-0 down at the break after a weak first half, however, these efforts are almost always in vain, and when United decided to lift to another gear late on, more punishment was inflicted. Wayne Rooney, who had been putting in a hard-working if not outstanding performance for his side thus far, unleashed a classic long range drive that swung away from Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale in front of the delighted United supporters, before the substitute Dimitar Berbatov added a sneaky back heel goal to make it five.
The 5-0 final score was a little harsh on Fulham given their second half work rate – but this was United’s night from start to finish, and although they will go to Christmas two points shy of their neighbours in sky blue, they will still be delighted to have rediscovered the free-flowing, free-scoring form that characterised the opening games of their campaign. The only sour note of the night for them was the aforementioned injury to Phil Jones, as well as to Ashley Young who returned to the bench with knee damage.
Fulham find themselves in more uncertain territory. In 13th position, just four points above the drop zone, they are in a maelstrom of sides of whom all could rise up the table, or just as feasibly get bogged down in a relegation fight. With the congested Christmas schedule just getting started, and tough fixtures against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal coming up, they need to find fluency and consistency – and fast.
Mancheser United 5 (Welbeck 5, Nani 28, Giggs 43, Rooney 88, Berbatov 90)