The very best players often come up with the goods at the most crucial of moments â€“ and how important Cristiano Ronaldo's 89th minute goal against Fulham could be in the title race this season.
United's usually incisive passing and slick movement was rarely on show at Craven Cottage, but the Reds dug deep when it mattered to earn a priceless three points, taking United nine clear of Chelsea and potentially eight wins from the title.
The game appeared destined for a draw until Ronaldo's timely intervention with barely a minute of normal time remaining. It was far from his most scintillating performance, but his surging and aggressively direct run from the left flank â€“ mustered so late in the match â€“ and fine finish into the far corner bore all the hallmarks of a great player.
Sir Alex made one change from the team that beat Lille during midweek, drafting in Wes Brown for Gary Neville. Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo both passed fitness tests to be ready for the match on either flank.
Fulham, meanwhile, were without Franck Queudrue, who bruised his ankle in training. He was replaced by Liam Rosenior at left-back. Michael Brown returned from a ban, but Vincenzo Montela missed out through suspension.
The Cottagers have drawn six of the last nine Premiership matches, highlighting their stubbornness. And they proved why they have that kind of form with their attacking play and insatiable desire to retain or win back possession. Neither did they allow Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, United's playmakers, to orchestrate attacking moves.
Blustery conditions at Craven Cottage didn't help, but Fulham grabbed control of the game and carved out numerous early chances. Simon Davies had Edwin van der Sar scrambling across his goal on ten minutes when his looping volley from wide on the right went just past the post. Earlier, Alexei Smertin also had a shot go narrowly wide of the post.
The Reds were finding it difficult to settle into any kind of rhythm. And the uncertainty in United's play was punished on 17 minutes. The Reds failed to cope with Davies' movement following a one-two just outside the area. Nemanja Vidic and van der Sar collided in their attempts to clear the danger, allowing Brian McBride to race in and strike the ball in off the post.
Ronaldo offered some hope of a rapid reprieve on 25 minutes when his pace sent him gliding past Rosenior and his shot fizzed past the post.
The crucial equaliser did arrive three minutes later. United broke away after Fulham lost possession, with Ryan Giggs playing in Rooney down the left channel. The Welshman continued his run to the far post and Rooney adroitly picked him out at the far post, where Giggs' struck his volley, perhaps not crisply executed, into the far corner of the net. Captain for the day, Giggs was making his 699th appearances, now just 60 outings behind Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time United record.
Following a slow and sluggish start, the Reds began to look dangerous on the break, with Rooney, Giggs and Ronaldo at the centre of United's counter attacks.
Patrice Evra should have given United the lead five minutes before the break when he latched onto a knock-down from Henrik Larsson, but with only the keeper to beat he volleyed wide.
But despite the strong finish before the interval, Fulham began the second half as they had the first, creating the better chances. On 48 minutes Davies delicately flicked the ball over Scholes' head inside the area and forced a superb save from van der Sar low and to his left.
Four minutes later Radzinski should have given the home side the lead when he headed against the woodwork from three yards out after Michael Brown's excellent cross. Just after the hour Van der Sar again denied his former club with a fine stop from Davies, and it was fast becoming a busy afternoon's work for the Dutchman.
Fulham continued to hassle and harass United in midfield, but, as in the first half, the Reds began to push forward as time progressed. And on 89 minutes the breakthrough came. It took something of monumental effort and ability to change the course of the game â€“ seemingly headed for a draw. And Ronaldo came up with the goods. Receiving the ball wide on the left he attacked the Fulham defence, cut inside and sent his shot into the far corner with his right foot. The away behind the goal erupted with as much relief as joy. If United are to win the Premiership this season, this 2-1 win â€“ inspired by Ronaldo â€“ will surely be looked upon as one of the decisive moments.
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