Late Ronaldo winner lifts United clear of Chelsea

Manchester United moved nine points clear of Chelsea at the top of the English Premier League on Saturday after Cristiano Ronaldo scored in the 88th minute to earn a 2-1 win at Fulham.

Ryan Giggs equalised for United midway through the first half after Brian McBride had put the home side ahead. Ronaldo then ran at the Fulham defence and hit a deflected shot into the net.

”It’s significant winning, the way we played today,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said. ”Fulham will feel very aggrieved at not winning the match.”

United lead the league with 69 points, while defending champion Chelsea aren’t in league action this weekend because they play Arsenal in Sunday’s League Cup final.

Also on Saturday, Robbie Fowler scored two penalties in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Sheffield United, and Charlton beat fellow strugglers West Ham 4-0. Middlesbrough defeated Reading 2-1, and Watford hosted Everton later.

McBride scored his 12th goal of the season in the 17th. United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, a former Fulham player, blocked midfielder Simon Davies and the ball ran to McBride, who hit a diagonal shot through defender Nemanja Vidic’s legs and into the net.

Wayne Rooney set up Giggs in the 29th and the winger volleyed into the net with the top of his foot for his second goal in five days. Giggs also scored in Tuesday’s 1-0 Champions League win at Lille.

United defender Patrice Evra shot wide shortly before half-time, but Fulham had the better chances in the second half.

Tomas Radzinski hit the crossbar with a header and Van der Sar stopped three shots from Davies and one by McBride.

With the game seemingly heading for a draw, Ronaldo hit his 16th goal of the season into the bottom corner off Fulham defender Philippe Christanval.

”Coming back from the game in Lille, which was an emotional game and which was a very difficult game, we were really flat in the opening period,” Ferguson said. ”That’s the most difficult game I’ve had all season.”

Fulham manager Chris Coleman was angry his side were denied a penalty — and possible equaliser — by referee Peter Walton when Van der Sar appeared to bring down Heider Helguson after Ronaldo’s goal.

”The referee has no excuses; he was in the perfect position,” Coleman said. ”There is only one way to put it and that is that he lost his nerve.”

Fowler scored penalties in the 20th and 25th minutes — both given for fouls on captain Steven Gerrard.

Fowler took the first kick after Sheffield United defender Rob Kozluk brought down Gerrard, because striker Peter Crouch had earlier been taken off the pitch with a bloodied head after a tackle from Rob Hulse.

Gerrard had his shirt pulled back by Nick Montgomery to earn Liverpool’s second kick and Fowler scored his third goal of the season.

Sami Hyypia scored in the 70th minute from close range, with Gerrard making it 4-0 in the 73rd.

West Ham manager Alan Curbishley didn’t enjoy his return to Charlton, where he spent 15 years before quitting in the off season.

Jerome Thomas scored twice, with Darren Ambrose and Darren Bent each adding another at the Valley.

While Curbishley left Charlton in the off season, current Charlton manager Alan Pardew was in charge of West Ham until December. Curbishley took over at West Ham and, later that month, Pardew was signed by Charlton.

Ambrose scored from a half volley after taking a cross from Marcus Bent in the 24th. Thomas scored 10 minutes later and Charlton goalkeeper Scott Carson protected the lead with a save from Nigel Quashie. Bent made it 3-0 in the 41st and Thomas added his second in the 80th.

Middlesbrough won with goals from Mark Viduka and Ayegbeni Yakubu. Viduka back-heeled the ball past Reading goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann from close range in the seventh.

The Australia striker turned provider in the 69th, crossing to Yakubu, who scored into the roof of the net. John Oster scored an 87th-minute consolation for Reading.

On Sunday, it’s: Blackburn vs Portsmouth; Tottenham vs Bolton; and Wigan vs Newcastle. — Sapa-AP

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