Manchester United fell further behind in the race for the Premier League's top four after a dramatic 2-2 draw at home to bottom club Fulham on Sunday at Old Trafford.
Steve Sidwell gave Fulham the lead in the 19th minute against the run of play before United upended the match with a rapid turnaround via Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick. But Fulham grabbed a late equaliser from substitute Darren Bent to deny United at the death.
United dominated every statistical category, holding 75 per cent of possession and taking an astounding 81 crosses. But Fulham scored with two of their three shots on target and proved deadly in their rare forays into the attacking third.
The result leaves United in seventh place with 41 points, nine behind fourth-placed Liverpool. Fulham remain in last place with 20 points but ended a run of four straight league defeats.
The only Man Utd players NOT to put in a cross today were David De Gea and Nemanja Vidic. 81 were made overall. pic.twitter.com/gRbPDXVrjH— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 9, 2014
Manchester United manager David Moyes drafted three new starters into his starting XI following the 2-1 loss at Stoke last Saturday. Captain Nemanja Vidic returned from suspension and slotted into central defence alongside Chris Smalling, who had started at full-back against Stoke. Rafael came into the side at right-back, while Darren Fletcher replaced Tom Cleverley in midfield.
Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen made four changes to his squad following the Cottagers' loss to Sheffield United on Tuesday in the FA Cup. New signings John Heitinga and Ryan Tunnicliffe made their league debuts, while John Arne Riise and Muamer Tankovic also came into the starting XI. On-loan American forward Clint Dempsey was not named in the team.
The Cottagers entered the match in last place and deeply entrenched in the relegation zone, five points adrift of safety. Their task becomes no easier, with a home match against in-form Liverpool up next on the schedule.
But Meulensteen's men will have a chance to dig their way out of the relegation zone with upcoming matches at 18th-placed West Brom (Feb. 22) and 19th-placed Cardiff (March 8).
Points have been at a comparable premium for United, who entered the match 10 points behind fourth-placed Liverpool and the Premier League's final UEFA Champions League place. Up next for the defending champions is a trip to second-placed Arsenal, who are reeling from a 5-1 loss at Liverpool on Saturday.
With so much at stake, it was little surprise when United started brightly. But even though the hosts dominated possession in the opening exchanges, Fulham took the lead against the run of play in the 19th minute.
Lewis Holtby exchanged passes with Riise in midfield before chipping a pass over United's defence for an unmarked Sidwell in the middle of the box. With his first touch, Sidwell volleyed past David de Gea into the bottom corner for a shocking 1-0 Fulham lead.
United responded with a spell of pressure and had a clear chance to equalise only three minutes later, when Rafael's cross from the right picked out an unmarked van Persie at the back. But van Persie volleyed his shot well off target, and Fulham escaped.
Ashley Young forced a save from Maarten Stekelenburg in the 27th minute, directing a header on goal from a tight angle from Juan Mata's cross. Two minutes later, Carrick volleyed narrowly wide from long distance after Fulham failed to clear a cross.
But for all their attacking, the hosts were cut open again in the 37th minute, when Fulham could have doubled their lead on a counter-attack after defending a United corner. Tankovic led the charge down the pitch and laid off for Kieran Richardson, who shot over the goal.
Moments later at the other end, Stekelenburg saved Carrick's shot before van Persie's rebound was deflected off target. Vidic then headed straight at Stekelenburg from the ensuing corner, and Fulham held on to their 1-0 advantage heading into halftime.
United held 73 percent of possession in the first half, and after the break, the Red Devils went straight back on the attack.
Van Persie headed over the bar in the 49th minute, and Stekelenburg saved Wayne Rooney's point-blank shot six minutes later. United had a penalty appeal in the 58th minute when the ball hit Dan Burn's hand in the box, but referee Kevin Friend allowed play to continue.
Still in search of an equaliser, United introduced Adnan Januzaj in the 62nd minute. The 19-year-old attacker replaced holding midfielder Darren Fletcher as Moyes shuffled his deck.
Januzaj produced an excellent cross in the 66th minute, picking out an unmarked Young at the back post. But instead of making an attempt on goal, Young pulled his header back into the middle, allowing Fulham to clear.
The equaliser finally came in the 78th minute, just when it looked like it wasn't going to be United's day.
Substitute Javier Hernandez's shot was blocked but not cleared, and Mata drove the ball toward the back post, where van Persie lurked unmarked. From there, the Dutchman swept it into the net to make it 1-1.
Juan Mata: Has 3 assists in his 3 PL apps for Manchester United, 1 more than he managed in his 13 PL apps for Chelsea this season #MUFC— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 9, 2014
The hosts suddenly looked good value for the winner. And within two minutes, it seemed to have arrived.
Fulham again failed to clear a cross, and the ball filtered out to Carrick along the edge of the box. His shot took a deflection before nestling into the corner for a quick 2-1 lead with 10 minutes left.
It was a just reward for United's overall dominance, and in the 88th minute, the hosts could have had another goal. But after a well-worked corner, Hernandez lifted his point-blank shot over the bar when a header might have found the net.
But there was drama yet to unfold, as United failed to kill off the match in stoppage time.
Pouncing on a poor clearance by Vidic, Sidwell powered toward the box before laying off for Richardson on the left. De Gea saved Richardson's powerful shot, but the rebound fell to Bent at the back post, where he nodded into the net for a dramatic and unlikely draw.
Moysie time, the complete opposite to Fergie time.— Back Page Football (@bpfootball) February 9, 2014
The oddest thing about that finale is that Meulensteen putting on Darren Bent at half-time was an absolutely baffling decision— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) February 9, 2014
|David De Gea||6||6|
|Robin van Persie||6||7|
|Adnan Januzaj (for Fletcher, 62')||N/A||7|
|Antonio Valencia (for Rafael, 69)||N/A||6|
|Javier Hernandez (for Young, 69')||N/A||6|
Manchester United play at Arsenal on Wednesday in the Premier League. Fulham host Liverpool the same day.