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Man Utd 2-2 Fulham Prem 25 1314 Daily Telegraph

last updated Monday 10th February 2014, 10:42 AM
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Henry Winter at Daily Telegraph

Man Utd (0) 2 Fulham (1) 2

Deep into Fergie time, Darren Bent headed an equaliser that stunned Old Trafford into silence, even the singing section. It was a grievous blow for Manchester United's manager David Moyes, who had seen his team recover from Steve Sidwell's first-half strike with goals from Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick.

Cross after cross, attack after attack had foundered on Fulham's superb defence until United finally found a way through with Van Persie and then Carrick. Moyes punched the air in delight and relief. United fans celebrated with an ironic chant of "we are staying up" but there was no laughing as Bent then pounced, leaving United nine points off the fourth Champions League place.

Fulham fans were singing "we are staying up'', staying bottom but taking a point and invaluable confidence. They had worked so hard, sticking to their game-plan of defending in numbers and counter-attacking infrequently, being under so much pressure that this draw felt like a win. United, for whom Wayne Rooney excelled, played 81 crosses but only 18 found a team-mate. United enjoyed 75 per cent possession but scored only twice. The scrutiny on Moyes will inevitably intensify.

Fulham were indebted to fine performances from their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, and the centre-half Dan Burn. Sidwell was superb in midfield, taking his chance well and being named man of the match. This was also a special moment for Rene Meulensteen, the Fulham manager, who had organized his defence so well on his return to his old stamping ground.

Knowing the siege in store, Meulensteen introduced more energy into the Fulham side, starting Ryan Tunnicliffe, the former United midfielder, William Kvist, the hard-working holding midfielder and the Swedish teenager Muamer Tankovic. Johnny Heitinga began in central defence, surprisingly at the expense of Brede Hangeland, who was on the bench. It was a gamble by Meulensteen, jettisoning such experience as Hangeland and Scott Parker.

If given time, Meulensteen hopes to play a more expansive game but any such ambition at Old Trafford was tempered by the quality of the opponents' attack and the injury preventing Kostas Mitroglou from making his debut.

Fulham were effectively playing with two false No 9s with Tankovic for 45 minutes and Lewis Holtby nominally upfront but soon dropping deep into midfield. Yet they counter-attacked superbly three times in the first half, scoring once through Sidwell.

The pressure was initially on Meulensteen. Fulham's first-team technical director, Alan Curbishley, was watching from the smart seats. So was the man who so helped Meulensteen climb the coaching ladder, Sir Alex Ferguson. His successor, Moyes, cut an anxious figure in the first half, particularly after Sidwell struck, and even more anxious at the end.

Moyes' players set about the visitors slowly, taking time to put them under meaningful pressure. United had plenty of possession, 73 per cent in the first period when they managed 39 of those crosses, but found Fulham's defending too resolute before the interval. Burn, the towering centre-half, headed out Ashley Young's cross. Heitinga then stifled Van Persie.

United kept hammering against Fulham's padlocked backdoor. Juan Mata and Rooney worked a move to Van Persie, who was beaten to the ball by the outstanding Stekelenburg. Then the unthinkable happened.

Old Trafford had opened a singing section but even that fell mute by events in the 19th minute. It was Fulham's first attack. It was with a team that started with no recognized forward, that had come to contain. John Arne Riise had ventured forward, laying the ball off to Holtby about 30 yards out.

The German was given far too much time. No one rushed to close him down. Holtby saw Sidwell ghosting in, and nobody in red tracking the Fulham midfielder. Holtby dinked the ball in for the stretching Sidwell to guide the ball past the exposed David De Gea.

The pressure was really on Moyes now. His players responded, going wide and occasionally through the middle in an attempt to evade the massed ranks of Fulham's defence. Cross after cross thudded over but rarely with great accuracy. Young's cross was headed out by Burn. Stekelenburg then dealt with a Young header. Mata was trying to weave some magic but Kvist dived in to nick the ball from under the Spaniard's feet. It was stirring defending from Fulham.

United kept creating chances. Van Persie wasted a good opportunity, skewing his shot wide. Carrick sent a volley wide. Sascha Riether headed Rafael's cross clear as Rooney lurked at the far-post. Burn repelled a Rooney free-kick.

Amazingly, Fulham could have added a second, squandering a marvelous chance. After 38 minutes, Kieran Richardson cleared to Tankovic, who sprinted 50 yards through the middle before slowing, waiting for Richardson's overlapping run. Tankovic laid the ball into space, Richardson advanced, the ball sitting up nicely for his favoured left foot but his shot flew over De Gea and way over the bar.

Back came United, fighting against the embarrassment. Carrick had a shot saved by Stekelenburg, who then held Nemanja Vidic's thumping header from Mata's corner. United's frustration could have deepened further just before the break when Richardson outstripped Vidic down the left so easily that the club looked vindicated in not looking to keep the Serb at Old Trafford. Richardson flew into space untended by Rafael and with Vidic disappearing in his rear-view mirror. Fortunately for United, Rooney covered back to thump the ball angrily clear for a corner. Rooney's determination to track back contrasted with Mata's less committed response.

The traffic continued to flow towards Fulham's goal after the break. Old Trafford sighed but kept any dissent in check despite the frustration. Van Persie's cross was just missed by the sliding Rooney.

The England international then thought he had scored nine minutes after the re-start. Young sent Patrice Evra down the left and the Frenchman's cross was eased by Mata into the path of Rooney. Somehow, Stekelenburg clawed Rooney's close-range, right-footed shot over. Stekelenburg was loving this, having been watched by Ferguson before United decided to bring in De Gea.

Still United poured forward. Still they were let down by poor delivery or thwarted by dogged Fulham defending. United screamed for a penalty when Burn appeared to handle the ball as Van Persie raced in. Moyes sent on Adnan Januzaj for Darren Fletcher, attempting to bring more guile into the forward movements. Januzaj swept one cross from left to right to Young, who headed aimlessly across goal.

Moyes played his last cards, sending on Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez for Rafael and Young. United were now 3-1-2-4. Valencia had responsibility for right-back but was on the wing. Januzaj was on the left, Rooney was in midfield with Mata in the hole behind Hernandez and Van Persie.

Meulensteen had brought on Bent at the break, replacing Tankovic, and sent on Parker for Tunnicliffe. United were stepping up the pace, pushing harder and harder for the equaliser. Sidwell blocked Januzaj. Holtby won the ball off Mata. Riise blocked Van Persie. Parker blocked Rooney.

And then United broke through. With 12 minutes remaining, Evra crossed from the left and Mata drove the ball back in for Van Persie to pounce, turning the ball past Heitinga on the line. And then, 60 seconds later, Carrick collected possession just outside the area and shot right-footed, the ball catching Parker and heading into the net with Stekelenburg wrongfooted. Moyes punched the air.

Fulham threatened an equalizer on the cusp of full-time but Rooney was immense covering back, stopping Holtby from getting a shot in. But their late perseverance was rewarded. De Gea kept out a Richardson shot but Bent stooped to capture a precious point for Fulham.

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