Manchester United finish in third place on 75 points and switch their focus now to beating Manchester City in Saturday’s FA Cup final and halting their neighbour’s tilt at emulating Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1999 vintage by claiming the treble.
The aggregate score this term between Erik ten Hag’s men and those of Pep Guardiola is 7-5 in City’s favour, though this hides the 6-3 hiding United took at the Etihad Stadium in October.
Yet the Dutchman can point to how his side claimed the honours in the last meeting – 2-1 at this stadium – and enjoy, too, a boost from this defeat of Fulham that showed spirit, energy and 110mph-football that may be the best hope of overcoming the champions at Wembley. They may also have Antony available after Ten Hag revealed, before kick-off, that the winger “probably will be available for the cup final”.
As has been the case all season here the game was contested in the noisy atmosphere that is the corollary of the entertainment factor under Ten Hag. This was evident again as a Diogo Dalot cross-shot was parried by Bern Leno – who had Fred tumbling over him – and a raking Marcus Rashford 25-yard free-kick left the Fulham goalkeeper’s fingers tingling.
In between, though, Leno’s teammates threatened when Willian’s ball to wide of David de Gea’s right post was headed back by Issa Diop on a right-angle for Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose close-range header should have been the opener but was wild.
Kenny Tete showed his teammate how it should be done after De Gea’s latest failure to make an aerial contribution when required. Willian pitched in a corner from the left and up rose the Fulham right-back unchallenged (Rashford jumped and headed air), Tete squeezing the ball home at the near post.
If this was not brilliant from De Gea, his next act was. Harry Maguire – possibly in a last Old Trafford outing for United before a summer move – saw a pass intercepted and when Tom Cairney skipped right in the area Casemiro fouled him and Robert Jones awarded the penalty. Mitrovic hit this to De Gea’s left and the Spaniard dived low to make a fine save, his first here from a spot-kick since a Leighton Baines effort in 2014.
De Gea is usually poker-faced but he celebrated, as did his colleagues and the delighted home crowd. Inspired, United rushed up the other end and had a couple of chances. In a lightning move, Dalot robbed Willian and tapped to Casemiro, whose weighted ball allowed Rashford to feed Fred, who found Fernandes. The Portuguese’s instant pass (the fifth of the sequence) played Garnacho in but he could not score. Even closer was the chance engineered when Tyrell Malacia side-footed again to Garnacho and the youngster crashed his shot off Leno’s bar.
United were behind yet ebullient and their mood was about to skyrocket. Fernandes adores leading the charge for those in red and for an umpteenth time the No 8 created a goal. The key part was holding off Sasa Lukic which, after a twirl, was followed by possession being stroked to an in-running Fred. As the Brazilian pulled the trigger he was caught in a Tosin Adarabiyo-Tete sandwich, the ball ricocheted to Jadon Sancho, and the forward rolled in the equaliser.
Fulham were thankful to make the break without a further breach, Rashford, Fernandes, Daloto and Sancho all posing questions the Cottagers just about answered.
Diop and Adarabioyo failed to do this when Casemiro floated a ball up from inside his area. As they dallied, it bounced, and Rashford was in line for goal No 31 but he missed – to the chagrin of all of a United persuasion.
The last time this fixture was staged here (in the Cup in March) Fulham self-combusted in 40 seconds of madness that featured three red cards that were superseded by Fernandes hitting a penalty to level the score. Now, his goal gave United the winner and he could thank Fred: the Brazilian’s vision created a schemer’s defence-bisecting pass that played Fernandes in. A swerve and a dinked chipped finish later and Fulham were losing.
As a calling card for the trip to north London this was just what Ten Hag ordered. United had fizzed about all afternoon, allowing their visitors no breath, puncturing them centrally and along the sides.
Rashford – via a battering-ram charge-and-shot – might have made the victory a two-goal margin. So, too, Wout Weghorst, who missed a glaring opportunity late on. But, after De Gea repelled a Carlos Vinícius effort, this was immaterial at a final whistle blown in pleasant sunshine.