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Fulham 0-1 Man Utd Prem25 1213 The Guardian

last updated Saturday 02nd February 2013, 11:57 PM

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Barney Ronay at The Observer

Fulham (0) 0 Man Utd (0) 1

The floodlights were not the only thing to flicker a little at Craven Cottage as Manchester United, presented with the chance to open up an intimidating 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League, finally took it thanks to a moment of expert incision from Wayne Rooney.

In a match that was pitched into darkness for 10 minutes just before half-time by the failure of the stadium's low rise lighting rig, Rooney's 79th-minute goal proved decisive in an entertaining victory against a Fulham team who defended well and broke with purpose.

Craven Cottage has always been a friendly kind of place, not least for United, who won 5-0 here last season, and who started this time an attacking 4-4-2, with Nani and Antonio Valencia providing width and Rooney playing close to Robin Van Persie in attack.

There was a sense of slightly skittish urgency all round this lovely, rickety old unreconstructed ground as United kicked off on a chilly south-west London evening, made to feel a little more dank as always by the presence of the Thames just beyond the lights.

Fulham started energetically, with the barrel-chested Giorgos Karagounis, dressed here in skintight short-sleeves and unusually large black gloves, ferreting at the heels of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, but it was United who had the first chance, in the eighth minute.

They really should have scored. Carrick's corner was turned goalwards off Brede Hangeland's shoulder and then scrabbled clear to Patrice Evra. His shot was blocked, as was Rooney's, brilliantly, by John Arne Riise on the goalline.

Moments later Fulham were down the other end, Riise advancing at speed to strike a bouncing ball from distance that would have dipped under the bar had David de Gea not found a little extra spring at the last to tip the ball over. Soon De Gea was diving full length again, this time tipping Bryan Ruiz's instant shot from Riise's pass on to his left post.

United attacked again, this time forcing a corner that Hangeland somehow managed to head on to the angle of his own post and crossbar from 10 yards out. With 16 minutes gone it could easily have been 2-2.

Instead some of the air went out of the contest as Carrick and Cleverley settled into their passing rhythms and Fulham drew all 10 outfield players back behind the ball.

Just after the half-hour United produced a lovely attacking move, Nani weaving inside and finding Cleverley, who teed up Rooney for a curling shot that hit the post with Mark Schwarzer beaten.

Then: darkness. On 42 minutes, with United preparing to take a corner, the floodlights abruptly winked out. The players duly trooped off, to emerge again 10 minutes later when power had been restored.

There was time for Van Persie to cut in from the right and have his first and only shot on target before half-time proper arrived.

United came out early after the break, perhaps propelled by a warming blast from the dressing room after a first half in which they were engaging but far from ruthless. Still the visitors dominated possession, lacking perhaps a little thrust from central midfield as the lateral-minded Carrick and Cleverley only occasionally made the kind of forward run that might have disturbed a well-set defence.

With the game's final quarter approaching Javier Hernández replaced Valencia as United switched to a 4-3-3, with Rooney rejigged into the left-wing position from where he would score the winning goal.

Fulham continued to break with purpose down the right, fine work from Ashkan Dejagah setting up Sascha Riether for a low drive and minutes later Rafael heading Ruiz's header from a corner off the line.

Then came Rooney's moment: a clearance by Patrice Evra was misjudged by Philippe Senderos, allowing Rooney space to advance to the edge of the area. From there it was a lovely finish. Opening his body to take the ball on his right foot, Rooney curled the ball low beyond the grasp of Schwarzer and was already celebrating as it crossed the line. It was his 10th goal in 10 games of an increasingly impressive mid-winter surge.

"I thought this was one of our better performances this year," Martin Jol said. "We needed a goal. We didn't score one, and they always good enough to get a goal. We'd played a lot of games recently but still we seemed fresh.

"We did very well in midfield and at the back as well. We just needed someone up front to do what Rooney did in the second half. We kept him quiet. He scored a goal out of nothing."

Asked if he thought United would win the title from here Jol's answer was concise: "Yes."

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