Cristiano Ronaldo made up for missing out on the European Footballer of the Year award by scoring both goals as Manchester United moved to within three points of leaders Arsenal with a 2-0 win against Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday.
Ronaldo, who was overlooked in favour of AC Milan’s Brazilian forward, Kaka, for the Ballon d’Or award that was announced on Sunday, proved too good for Fulham, who saw their woeful Premiership away record stretch to 24 games without victory as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team cruised to the win.
United had allowed themselves to fall off the Premiership pace by losing 1-0 at Bolton in their last league outing and nothing but three points against Fulham would do for the champions, with Arsenal stretching their lead to six points with a weekend victory at Aston Villa.
Manager Ferguson had made the point in his match programme notes that further slip-ups would not be tolerated and the message appeared to have hit home loud and clear as United tore at Fulham inside the opening ten minutes.
Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez should have hit a hat-trick during that period as three golden chances fell into his path, but the former West Ham forward failed to take any of them.
Tevez first let Fulham off the hook when he headed Anderson’s cross wide from three yards after beating the offside trap to take his chance at the far post.
Moments later, he was then denied by a brilliant save from goalkeeper Antti Niemi, who dived low to block Tevez’s snapshot from 12 yards.
His luck clearly wasn’t in and Tevez had another near miss on eight minutes when his right foot strike from the edge of the penalty area was deflected over the crossbar by Fulham captain Aaron Hughes.
Where Tevez was wasteful, however, Ronaldo was lethal and the Portugal international gave United the lead on ten minutes with a thunderous volley that left Niemi completely helpless.
On this occasion, poor defending by Fulham unlocked the door for United. Lawrie Sanchez’s team failed to properly clear Ryan Giggs’s corner and the ball ultimately fell to Ronaldo on the edge of the six yard box after a flick-on from defender Nemanja Vidic.
Unmarked, Ronaldo simply lashed a right-foot volley into the roof of the net to put United ahead and claim his twelfth goal of the season.
That should have been the start of a goal avalanche, but Fulham managed to stifle United and they even went close to levelling the scores before the break when former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy forced keeper Edwin van der Sar into action with a well-struck effort from 20 yards.
Fulham never looked like dragging themselves level, though, and United merely needed to find a second goal to put the game beyond the Londoners.
It took a while in coming, however, as the chances dried up following the lightning start.
Sanchez’s team could not hold out until the end of the game, though, and Ronaldo doubled United’s lead when he headed in John O’Shea’s cross from close range on 58 minutes.
A stunning volley in one half and a centre-forward’s header the next. There is little that Ronaldo cannot produce and Ferguson’s assertion that the 22-year-old is one of the world’s best players is difficult to contest.
Ronaldo would have scored a hat-trick as well but for a bizarre penalty incident on 79 minutes.
Seemingly fouled by Niemi 12 yards out, referee Rob Styles refused the appeals and booked the United star for diving. Why he would go down with an open goal at his mercy is one for Styles to explain, but it was certainly one of the more ridiculous decisions of the season. — Sapa-AFP