Manchester United demolished Fulham 4-1 in processional fashion on a chilly evening at Old Trafford to secure their place in the 5th round of the FA Cup.
Sir Alex demonstrated his faith in his younger squad members by leaving the likes of Ferdinand and Robin van Persie on the bench. Despite a disproportionate level of criticism from certain members of the media this week, De Gea started in goal behind a back four of Evra, Jones, Smalling and Rafael. Nani played wide right, with Carrick and Anderson across the middle, and Ryan Giggs rolling back the years playing out on the left wing. Rooney and Hernandez were up top.
Martin Jol, fresh from his assertions that Old Trafford would be an easier place to visit than the Etihad had been for them.. (er, whatever) started Dimitar Berbatov who returned to the Theatre of Dreams for the first time since his summer move to enthusiastic applause from the home faithful.
A shame as it is to say it, the contest was effectively over after just two minutes when Aaron Hughes inexplicably handled the ball from an early United corner.
Quite what he thought he was doing is beyond me, and a clearer penalty you couldn’t hope to see. Yet, inevitably, the ABU’s around the world instantly decided it was ‘yet another’ case of Clattenburg going soft on United – like he never does.
Giggs dispatched the penalty, despite Rooney being on the field, a decision that Sir Alex would confirm was his after the game in an interview in which he once again stated that Rooney’s penalty scoring record should be better than it is for a player of his quality (his miss against West Ham in the 3rd round replay tie was his 10th of his United career).
The Reds should have had a second penalty when Damien Duff handled inside the area, but Clattenburg waved protests away. This shout was arguably more of a penalty than the first, so why remains a mystery. Situations such as this, that clearly demonstrate inconsistent application of the rules are infuriating and should be focused on regardless of their effect on the outcome of the game.
United were the better side for the rest of the first half, but it wasn’t until the early stages of the second half that United really put the tie to bed. 3 goals in 15 minutes saw the scoreline begin to reflect United’s dominance as first Rooney and then a brace from Hernandez powered United into a four goal lead.
Rooney’s goal was set up thanks to a dissecting through-ball from Anderson, who played well all game, though only managed his customary 70 minutes before looking far too knackered to continue.
Hernandez looked nailed on to get his first of the game as Nani broke free into the right side of the box, however as was his problem all game, his final ball was poor. He reacted well though, and eventually found Rooney who pushed the ball along the 6 yard line for Hernandez to hook in in typical poacher fashion.
The Mexican’s second came from another perfect ball from midfield, this time from Giggs, and then a lucky deflection after chopping inside.
Fulham pulled one back on the 77 minute mark as Rooney allowed Aaron Hughes an unmarked header at the near post, however it was never going to be anything more than a consolation goal.
Sir Alex should be pleased with the team performance, especially that of Anderson while he was on the field, and Smalling throughout who were assured and impressive. Nani continued to provide a counter-attacking outlet but was incredibly disappointing with regards to his final decision making and must improve on that if he is to stay with the team beyond this summer.
United’s reward for the win is another Premier League tie in the 5th round, this time against Reading. But with the likes of Spurs and, to a far lesser extent, Liverpool now out of the competition, Sir Alex may feel this is his best opportunity to win it in a good few years.