It is Saturday once more. After a week of introspection and frustration, everyone was expecting United to come out blazing and make a statement. There was more talk of how many United would put past Fulham, rather than the game itself.
There would've been as much anticipation on Merseyside as there'd be in the Red half of Manchester. The manager and the players would like to shrug off the pressure and say it's just another day in office, but for the fan, it's a never-ending saga of joy and heartache, a skip of the heartbeat and a tear of joy. Lets kick on with game and see it through a fan's eyes.
The Build Up
As I said earlier, one would have expected Manchester United to come out of the traps and come out all guns blazing. As many other writers on BR pointed out, United are a proud club; the drubbing at home would not have gone well with the club and the fans alike. The last time they were beaten in the league, they went on an unbeaten run, only to be beaten last week.
However, Fulham have been quite a revelation this season. Having struggled for the last couple of seasons to beat the drop, they seem relatively well placed this season. Having been beaten only thrice at the Craven Cottage, they sure were up for it.
To add to the momentum, they beat Bolton at the Reebok last week to secure their first win on the road. So things were all nicely set up for the game the Cottage.
The First Half
The game started with Fulham coming out to make a point. United had a few changes in personnel from the team that lost to Liverpool last week. However, it was the duo of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson that was looking lively in front of the goal. The initial exchanges were scrappy, without either side testing the keeper. There was a battle on in the midfield.
Just when things seemed to get even, United made the first blunder. Fulham's efforts won them a corner, which was well headed by Zamora only for VDS to make a quick reaction save. He could, however, only punch it out a few yards from him. The follow on effort from Zamora was blatantly handled by Paul Scholes, who was on the post.
United had blinked. It was more an instantaneous reaction than a deliberate hand ball. All said and done, it was a clear sending off, as he was the last man between the goal and Zamora's effort; he was rightly sent off.
Danny Murphy slotted home the penalty. Suddenly, it was advantage Fulham. United struggled to come to terms with the early blow. The sending off just added to their woes. Fulham were deservedly ahead and pressed for the second goal.
After months in hibernation, VDS was called into action for once. He made a few brilliant saves and kept United in the game til half time. The culprits of the half—the old guard of Scholes and Giggsy.
The duo struggled to get together a string of passes. The sending off was only a part of the story. Of course, Berbatov was present on the pitch as usual but failed to get involved in the game. He is class, no doubt, but he should try getting it out of the locker sometimes.
The Second Half
Berbatov was rightly substituted and the temperamental Wayne Rooney was brought on. His arrival seemed to galvanize United, as they hardly looked like they were a man down. United pressed for the equalizer and in fairness they were only denied by the heroics of Schwarzer.
Park Ji Sung was lively as ever at Craven Cottage, which has been more like his second home—the Korean having scored on the last two visits to the cottage.
But it just wouldn't go in for United, as wave after wave of attack came to nothing. Wayne Rooney seemed to have rubbed off his enthusiasm to his teammates as well.
The Reds pushed on for the equalizer with Rooney, Park, and Ronaldo all going close. United were a shadow of what they were against Liverpool, as they dominated the game even with 10 men.
Schwarzer's heroics kept Fulham ahead for most of the second half. However, a few poor passes and a few fouls by Fulham slowed down the momentum.
Cristiano Ronaldo was easily the most frustrated soul on the pitch. Nothing seemed to be going his way. As some pointed out, it is probably more of a mental exertion than a physical one. It earned him a booking though.
Just when United were looking to have regained their lost touch, the Fulham manager did well to make substitutions at key points in the game and slow the pace of the game. And it was a substitute that made the difference.
The youngster Gera came off the bench and in what was an unlikely counter attack, Fulham gave United the sucker punch with an acrobatic effort from Gera.
It was not over, however. Wayne Rooney was determined to make his presence on the pitch felt. His travails earned him his second yellow card and a sending off. Just when everyone had decided that the title was United's, they seem to have turned generous themselves.
SAF - For goofing up his selection
Against Liverpool, SAF was caught on the back foot as he sent out a side with a lack of English names—the likes of Scholes, Fletcher, and Giggs, which are common in the big games against their rivals. As if he wanted to mend his mistakes too early, he picked all the three together in midfield rather than start with two upfront.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs - the Old guard
No doubt the two veterans are still instrumental for United winning the title, but today was just not their day. They have struggled when they have played together in recent times, even against Inter at home. The duo could just not keep the ball and match the energy of their younger counterparts and opponents.
Nemanja Vidic - For his blunder last week, that still seems to have the effects on United.
Wayne Rooney - For putting his teammates into more trouble, which will probably count in the coming weeks
Having said all this, full credit to Fulham. They were relentless in their efforts and made the home advantage count. They struck at important times in the game and Roy Hodgson did well to slow the game down.
The result would have sent ripples through Manchester and waves of joy through Merseyside, only if Liverpool can make this one count. The title race has—as the cliche goes—truly burst into life. United have been beaten twice in a span of a week.
Are United cracking up? Has SAF lost it? Well, not just yet. While United were much improved from last week, they sadly have nothing to show for except a loss. The Championship form which they seemed to have suddenly seems lost. Lady luck suddenly seems to have stopped smiling at them. The crucial goal that they managed to score every time suddenly seems elusive now.
With only a four-point lead to show for now, United season is on the cusp of being turned around, and for once, it's not for the good. What seemed an aberration last week seems to be turning into a full fledged downfall.
As everyone says, the title is United's to lose and they seem to be taking the prerogative to make things interesting for Chelsea and Liverpool.
As SAF said, United always do it the hard way. We will know at the end of the season if doing it the hard way helped them at all. If this is what he meant by a RESPONSE, then they'd be better of without it.