Rooney turns lights out on Fulham
Decisive ... Wayne Rooney curls his shot around defender Aaron Hughes and in. Photo: AFP
JUST as it looked like Manchester United's title hopes might dim a little - and not just because of a first-half floodlight failure - Wayne Rooney illuminated this occasion to stretch their lead at the top of the table to a daunting 10 points.
The pressure was back on the champions Manchester City, who were hosting Liverpool on Sunday, and know that nothing short of a victory would suffice. But defeat was hard on Fulham, even if United struck the woodwork three times (the home side did once) in a hugely entertaining encounter.
There was no Dimitar Berbatov, out with a hamstring injury, for Fulham and without him they relied on the velocity of Hugo Rodallega.
United could have gone ahead four times in one chaotic sequence of play. From a corner Antonio Valencia's header struck Brede Hangeland and Mark Schwarzer palmed away superbly, but only to Patrice Evra, whose shot hit the crossbar. That rebound fell to Rooney, who hooked the ball goalwards only for Sascha Riether to clear off the line. Finally, Valencia spun and shot sharply but his low effort was held by Schwarzer.
Back came Fulham and the ball dropped for John Arne Riise, fully 30 metres out, and his angled drive, all swerve and dip, was just tipped over by David De Gea. The hosts poured forward again and in another sweeping move Riise laid the ball to Bryan Ruiz whose snap shot beat De Gea only to cannon off the base of the post.
United countered, and Hangeland superbly tackled Nani as he shaped to shoot before, from the corner, the Fulham defender inadvertently headed against his own crossbar, with Valencia half-volleying the rebound into the side-netting.
The encounter was proving to be breathless and compelling, and the excitement continued with a narrow shot from Ashkan Dejagah swerving wide from the edge of the area.
Rooney went close then struck the post after a fine move that began with Nani running at the Fulham defence before picking out Tom Cleverley, who teed up Rooney to - even more cleverly - curl his shot around Hangeland and strike the frame of the goal. That made it 3-1 to United in striking the woodwork.
By now the rhythm of the contest was being dictated by United - although with Fulham still looking dangerous on the counter-attack - but then, after 43 minutes, the lights went out.
In the week in which Fulham chairman Mohamed Fayed converted £187 million ($285 million) worth of loans into equity, making the club debt-free, he left himself open to jokes about not paying the electricity bill.
There was an 11-minute delay and somehow the interval arrived with the game still goalless.
Alex Ferguson had rung the changes, five in all, from the team that had scraped over the line in midweek against Southampton but it was not a lack of fluidity that was the problem - it was just the finishing.
Fulham almost capitalised when Rio Ferdinand overran the ball and lost possession. Giorgos Karagounis broke forward on the counterattack but could only drag his shot woefully wide.
Ferguson brought on Javier Hernandez, while Fulham manager Martin Jol handed a debut to on-loan AC Milan midfielder Urby Emanuelson. The changes added yet more impetus, with the home side breaking only for De Gea to block Riether's effort, although he did not hold it, after the fullback had combined with Dejagah.
Emanuelson's first involvement was to send in a dangerous cross that Jonny Evans had to head out from under his own crossbar. From the corner Ruiz's header was cleared off the line by Rafael.
But it was United who scored, with Philippe Senderos nudging Hernandez rather than concentrating on heading clear a long ball down the touchline, and the pass fell to Rooney, who sprinted into the area. Calmly he used substitute Aaron Hughes as a shield to unsight Schwarzer and curled his right-foot shot into the net for a fifth goal in five games.