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Fulham snatches a point from United
It was a wild end to what had been a tense game: Fulham had led for three quarters of the match only to see United score two quick-fire goals to seize the lead. But, at the death, Steve Sidwell collected a slack pass at midfield and fired it upfield to Kieran Richardson. Richardson forced David De Gea into a sprawling save, and the rebound fell to Bent at the far post. He calmly nodded it home. Old Trafford went silent – until the whistle, when they booed their manager off the field.
"Today was as bad as it gets," United manager David Moyes said afterward. "We dominated the game ... How we didn't win, I have no idea."
The result almost certainly saved manager Rene Meulensteen’s job for now. His Cottagers have been abject, hitting rock bottom when they were ejected from the FA Cup by Sheffield United last Tuesday in as poor a game as any you’ll ever see. But if Meulensteen was nervous about visiting his old club, he didn’t show it, fielding a lineup that on the surface looked quite bizarre. Absent were Clint Dempsey and new signing Konstantinos Mitroglou; Scott Parker and Brede Hangeland rode the bench. The untested young Swedish forward Muamer Tankovic was instead deployed with Lewis Holtby right behind him.
So, at the start, it looked like Fulham was merely playing for the point, with nine men behind the ball and little attention to moving forward. But, 19 minutes in and on Fulham’s first real foray at the net, Sidwell shocked Old Trafford when he raced around Juan Mata to latch onto a well-weighted chip from Holtby. Sidwell sidefooted the ball past a rooted De Gea to the far post, and the small band of traveling support here exploded. So did manager Moyes, unable to contain his frustration at conceding such a goal wholly against the run of play.
That set up an incredible hour of play that basically saw the Cottagers build a trench around their net. Stuffed into the box for the majority of the game, Fulham dared United to find a way through – and as the game wore on, it was apparent that while United were by far the better side, they also were grossly lacking in ideas. Despite the attacking flair that Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata can bring to the table, little of that was in evidence for much of the match. Instead, United were reduced to whipping cross after cross in while Fulham camped out, and the stress was evident on Moyes’ face as time ran down.
Juan Mata's reaction summed up United's emotions as the final whistle blew. (Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters)
United’s problem was that they kept doing the same exact thing: crossing and hoping. What happened was that the hulking Dan Burn calmly headed most of them away, and when United did get a shot off on frame, they found it nearly impossible to beat Maarten Stekelenburg. The keeper simply had a blinder tonight, making a series of heroic saves. He stuffed van Persie near post, denied Rooney with a one-handed bit of acrobatics, and repelled Carrick point-blank.
When the dam did finally break, it was because of a rare Fulham error. John Arne Riise repelled a shot from Mata, but not far enough, allowing the Spaniard to touch it on to van Persie. He could hardly miss from two yards. A minute later, Richardson would repel an attack, but his outlet fell right to Carrick, who, with the crowd urging him to shoot, did just that and blasted it – with help from a deflection – past the helpless Stekelenberg.
At that point, all United had to do was play out the game and the result would have been cruel on Fulham. They did not. Carrick turned the ball over to Sidwell late, and Fulham came away with the point they deserved.
One can only imagine what is going on in United’s locker room at this time. Moyes looked disgusted. Mata stood at midfield and looked a picture of shock. United will feel this as a game they lost, and now they must pick up the pieces and head south to London, where they face an Arsenal side smarting from Saturday’s demolition at the hands of Liverpool.
Fulham, on the other hand, celebrated as if they won the league.
"I think we defended fantasically well. Then at the end, thought it would slip away, but in the end, with Darren Bent, it felt like a winner," Meulensteen said after the match. "The most important thing is that we got a point. A lot of people think we are dead and buried, and that’s not true."
They remain rooted to the foot of the table, stuck on 20 points. But this may prove to be the result they need to survive their relegation battle. It was certainly impressive – it just wasn’t pretty.
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