Fulham 1 Manchester United 3
Wayne Rooney’s continuing rehabilitation at Manchester United, going from ‘ask away’ striker to his team’s most consistent and committed performer has been underlined by manager David Moyes’ assertion that the 28-year-old is becoming his leader on the pitch.
United, up to eighth in the Premier League and only three points adrift of Chelsea, go to Real Sociedad in the Champions League tomorrow with a growing sense that things are starting to come together following a difficult start to the season.
Victory in Spain would put them all but through to the knockout stages in Europe and although serious doubts remain about the team’s defensive stability and lack of creativity in midfield, Rooney’s name is no longer included on the list of problems for Moyes to deal with.
A new contract still seems to be off the agenda but any doubts over Rooney’s commitment to the club have been completely erased by Moyes’ decision to play him every week alongside Robin van Persie.
“He’s a big leader in the team now,” said Moyes. “He’s desperate for the team to be successful. Obviously having a successful team helps him as well. But he’s got leadership qualities and he’s a man when he’s on the pitch.
“Even here, we felt as though Adnan Januzaj needed to drop in, so I needed to pull Wayne out for the last 15 minutes just to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. He understands that and I think he’s at an age now he can see that as well.”
Rooney was the catalyst for a devastating 20-minute spell in the first half which Moyes described as his team’s best of the season and which put United 3-0 up with Fulham struggling to keep up.
The striker played a perfect pass across the area for Antonio Valencia to score the first after nine minutes before van Persie scored with a flashing drive on the break — even though Fulham midfielder Scott Parker claimed he had been fouled in the build-up; and Rooney then found the net himself after 22 minutes, a tap-in courtesy of a perfect low cross from van Persie.
In fairness to Fulham they improved vastly after the break when United’s cohesion was ruined by injuries to Johnny Evans (back), Tom Cleverley (double vision) and Rafael (ankle) who were all replaced at the break and all face a race against time to be fit for Sociedad tomorrow.
The home team’s increased endeavour was rewarded with a Kacaniklic goal — deflected off Rooney — but in truth United were always in control and Moyes had a right to feel satisfied.
“We’re improving, we know we have to,” he said. “We want our performance level to get better. But there are some signs we’re coming to it. We’re getting the chance to see all the players in action and that’s happening as well.”
There are one or two caveats to consider, however, because despite a promising display by Marouane Fellaini there are still concerns that United lack an edge in midfield, rely too heavily on the attacking talents of Rooney and van Persie and remain porous at the back.
“If you give them space like we did with Rooney up front you are in trouble but if you play like us in the second half you can punish them because they play with a lot of players up front and if your transitional game is good you can do something,” Martin Jol said. “That is what we tried to do, and in the second half you saw that we were equal.”
Jol, however, will be more concerned about sorting out his own problems. Defender Sascha Riether could face action from the FA after kicking out at Januzaj late in the game while home fans chanted for Jol to be sacked and booed striker Brian Ruiz, whose half-hearted and disinterested partnership with Dimitar Berbatov summed up Fulham’s first-half problems.
“That is very, very frustrating and very disappointing for me because I want my supporters to stay behind my players,” said Jol. “He is a very unbelievably nice person so I had to whisper a few words in his ear. Bryan is sometimes my best player and sometimes he gets caught on the ball; people have to get used to him. And if they don’t then we have a problem because I need Bryan Ruiz. Maybe they don’t need me but they need Bryan Ruiz — believe me.”
With Liverpool away coming up next, Jol needs all the help he can get — a feeling his opposite number Moyes can probably empathise with despite this result. He will be hoping the worst is over now for United and the signs are promising. But with Arsenal and Everton at home and Spurs away in the next month the biggest tests are yet to come.
FULHAM: Stekelenburg 6, Riether 5, Senderos 4, Amorebieta 6, Richardson 5, Dejagah 6 (Kacaniklic 61), Sidwell 7, Parker 7 (Bent 83), Kasami 7, Ruiz 4 (Taarabt 75; 6), Berbatov 5.
MAN UTD: De Gea 6, Rafael 6 (Smalling 46; 6), Evans 6 (Fellaini 46; 7), Vidic 7, Evra 6, Jones 6, Cleverley 7 (Kagawa 46; 6), Valencia 6, Rooney 8, Januzaj 7, van Persie 8.
Referee: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).
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