Manchester United 2-2 Fulham
Even in this season where nothing can be taken for granted, we really didn’t expect this. Most of United’s failings at home this season have come as a result of our inability to control games against weaker opposition. That really wasn’t the case here, yet we allowed Fulham to grab a lead and hold it until late into the second half and then, with the game apparently trundling towards its close and a United victory, Darren Bent popped up at the end of injury team to secure an equaliser for the Premiership’s bottom club.
Fulham started like the bunch of youngsters and journeymen they’d appeared to be on the team sheet, more a group of bewildered individuals gathering together in the aftermath of a plane crash than a coordinated team. United attacked in numbers, thwarted only by the numbers of bodies in the opposition box before the unthinkable happened. Holtby, secured from Spurs in the transfer window, floated a decent ball into the United box; decent, but the kind of thing you’d expect a United central defence to intercept and snuff out. As it was, Sidwell timed his run perfectly and was allowed to make it by four United players before slotting home the pass completely unchallenged.
Old Trafford, not for the first time this season, held its collective breath. Were we about to witness a disastrous defeat that would dwarf all the other disastrous defeats in this campaign? It wasn’t to be the case, although the eventual outcome was almost as bad. United didn’t so much come back strongly as continue to apply the pressure that preceded the goal, Mata floating a delightful ball to the far post for Young to see his header saved by the increasingly busy Stekelenburg; Carrick then unleashed a shot from twenty yards that went narrowly wide.
Despite United’s dominance the next clear cut chance fell again to Fulham, former Red Keiron Richardson surging forward on the break to find himself with only De Gea to beat, only to blaze his shot high over the bar. United sprang back, relieved not to be two goals down, with Carrick and Van Persie seeing shots blocked in quick succession before Vidic placed his towering header from the resulting corner into the clutches of Stekelenburg. Remarkably, however, it was Fulham who went in at half-time with the advantage, and indeed almost caught the Reds on the break again in the closing seconds, Rooney crucially tracking back to cut out Richardson’s teasing cross.
The ref’s whistle was not greeted with the chorus of boos you’d expect to hear when losing to a team at the bottom of the table, more by a stunned silence. There was no more suitable reaction, because it was hard to see exactly what United had done wrong, aside from the defending on the goal. Mata, though nominally deployed on the right, was coming infield to allow Rafael to surge forward on the touchline; Fletcher was supplying the kind of energy in midfield that allowed Carrick the time to move and play the ball around; Rooney was energetic, Van Persie lively and Young, although a poor cross towards the end of the half resulted in a corner after a strangely panicked Riise put it over his own bar, wasn’t doing a lot wrong either.
Despite the scoreline, more of the same, with added urgency, seemed the most obvious response in the second half. Which is pretty much what happened. Rooney had a golden chance in the 55th minute, but Stekelenburg somehow managed to claw his shot away. The Reds were denied a clear penalty shortly after when Byrne padded the ball away from Van Persie with his hand.
Unsurprisingly, the call for Januzaj went out and was answered on the hour when the young Belgian was brought on with a familiar briefing: save the game and United’s season. A cross from the teenager came close to achieving the breakthrough almost immediately. It was met by Ashley Young who cut back for Rooney, whose shot was weak and once again gathered by the Fulham keeper. Soon after another cross from the same source brought a header from Young, which was again cleared, but the increased danger engineered by the substitution was already apparent.
By this point, formations had pretty much gone out of the window. If it was possible for Fulham to become even more rooted in their own half then that’s what happened, while further substitutions saw United finish the game with Rooney, Van Persie, Mata, Chicharito, Januzaj and Valencia all on the pitch, a clear illustration of the desperation of the situation in the last twenty minutes of the game. The equaliser came at the end of a goalmouth scramble that looked again to have ended in frustration but Mata’s ball somehow found its way to Van Persie, who scored with a tap-in. The second goal wasn’t far away. Januzaj’s cross was only partly cleared and the ball fell to Carrick whose shot gained a fortuitous deflection on its way to goal. All previous deflections had very much been in the favour of the away team, so it was almost a shock to see the ball hit the back of the net. Understandably, the ripple of relief that went around Old Trafford was audible.
And that should have been it but, with seconds remaining in injury time, Carrick was dispossessed by Sidwell, who found Richardson, whose shot was saved well by De Gea only for the rebound to fall to Bent, who struck to gain the most unlikely point that any side will secure in the Premiership this season. There will, of course, be strengthened calls for the head of Moyes after this draw, which surely makes it very difficult for United now to secure a Champions League place next season. And yet this was a game in which, apparently, United broke the Premiership record for the number of crosses and in which the long-standing critique of a failure to dominate games wasn’t a factor. Something is not right. While it’s far more difficult to pinpoint what it is than some people are claiming, it’s hard to imagine many sides of the recent past fail to see out a result like this having fought so hard to secure the advantage. The most prominent activity among fans leaving Old Trafford was the shaking and scratching of heads; better than a crescendo of boos, maybe, but a reaction that sums up our current plight better than a million articles on the subject ever could.