FULHAM 1 (Lookman 5)
MANCHESTER UNITED 2 (Cavani 21, Pogba 65)
PAUL POGBA is so often portrayed as a villain but last night he was Manchester United’s hero as he shot Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men back above their noisy neighbours City and on top of the Premier League again.
Pogba struck a goal of pure gold in the 65th minute of a game that United needed to win if they were to return to the summit where Pep Guardiola’s men had planted their flag a couple of hours earlier by beating Aston Villa.
It was a goal of a season contender, struck with power and precision into the far corner of goal from 25 yards, and kept up United’s unbeaten away record. They had fallen behind to an early goal from Fulham forward Ademola Lookman, but Edinson Cavani equalised 15 minutes later and Pogba made sure of all three points to send the Reds home happy.
Solskjaer had made three changes from the side that fought out a goalless draw at Liverpool on Sunday, with Cavani replacing Marcus Rashford up front, Eric Bailly in for Victor Lindelof at the back and Scott McTominay also dropping to the bench, with Mason Greenwood added as an extra attacker.
It was a sign of Solskjaer’s ambition to go at Fulham, who were unbeaten in six until Mason Mount’s late winner for Chelsea in Saturday’s west London derby.
Scott Parker has gradually built a decent looking side, who have held both Liverpool and Tottenham in recent weeks, although goals have been in short supply.So it was a surprise when Fulham took the lead within five minutes of kickoff. It has to be said the conditions were not conducive to controlled, stylish football, with a viciously cold wind whipping in off the River Thames. Certainly Aaron Wan Bissaka was not the first player to make a mistake when he lost the ball as he tried to advance from right back, but it was a costly error. Fulham built from the back again and when Andre-Frank Zamba Anguissa evenutally played the ball forward to Lookman, it was Wan Bissaka who played the Fulham forward onside. Lookman showed unerring intent as he sped towards David De Gea and arrowed his shot into the far corner of goal.
Fulham deserved their lead for their energy and purpose, snapping at United heels and forcing mistakes, although the Reds did not help themselves with some sloppy passing in the swirling wind.
Solskjaer’s men eventually settled into a familiar rhythm, with Luke Shaw looking dangerous with his powerful running down the left. Bruno Fernandes was popping up here there and everywhere and soon went down looking for a penalty under Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s challenge only for referee Martin Atkinson to ignore his claims.
But it was Fernandes who got United back into the game. Fulham made the mistake of allowing him room on the edge of the penalty area more than once. The first time he got a clear sight of goal, Fernandes let fly from 25 yards but the ball thudded off the post with Alphonse Areola beaten. Fernandes did not give up, though, and when the ball was eventually recycled to him out on the left, he fired in a low cross that Areola failed to hold, and Cavani was on hand to shoot the ball straight back past the French keeper. It was the Uruguayan’s first league goal since his late winner at Southampton in November.
United were far more confident now, and Fernandes tried another long-range effort, only for Areola to atone for his earlier error by saving at full stretch. Anthony Martial headed one cross over the bar, Harry Maguire put another well wide from a corner.
Fulham looked to hit on the counter-attack and Anguissa put Ivan Cavaleiro through, only for the forward to push the ball too far ahead of himself and out of play.
Lookman forced the first save of the second half with a low shot, but then Pogba stepped up to the plate. The Frenchman had apologised to team-mates for missing a chance at Anfield on Sunday, but he more than made up for it here. Collecting the ball in a congested area wide on the right, he cut back past two players towards the corner of the penalty area and unleashed an unstoppable shot with his left boot into the far corner of goal from 25 yards. Areola could not get anywhere near the shot, and berated his defenders for not closing down Pogba, but it would have taken a Herculean effort to stop his goal of the season contender.
Cavani continued to cause Fulham problems with his clever movement and striking instincts, and Areola had to be alert again to keep out a close range header. Loftus-Cheek had a great opportunity to equalise with a low shot in the 75th minute, but De Gea saved well with his legs, and the England midfielder then blasted high over the bar as United hung on for an invaluable victory.
Areola 6; Aina 6 (Mitrovic 83), Andersen 7 ; Adarabioyo 7; Tete 6, Anguissa 7 (Lemina 79) , Reed 7, Bryan 5 ; Loftus-Cheek 7, Lookman 7, Cavaleiro 5 (Kamara 69).
Man Utd 4-3-3
De Gea 7; Wan Bissaka 6, Bailly 7, Maguire 7, Shaw 7; Fernandes 7, Fred 6, Pogba 8; Greenwood 6 (McTominay 85), Cavani 8, Martial 6 (Rashford 85)
Ref Martin Atkinson