Player was substituted for tactical reasons
Player was substituted for tactical reasons
Ruud Van Nistelrooy
David Beckham Card was given for a foul
Nicky Butt Card was given for a foul
And their inspiration is a winger whose penetration was sorely missed.
But despite his own return to the starting line-up after a six-game absence, it was not David Beckham who guided his side to victory at Fulham as their reinvigorated title challenge gathered further credence.
No, it was Ryan Giggs who not only scored twice and set up Ruud van Nistelrooy but also provided a potential solution to Sir Alex Ferguson's search for an inventive spark to play just behind the Dutchman.
While Beckham was trying to play himself back into form, Giggs was at his awesome best just three games into his own comeback from injury.
Having scored against Everton on Boxing Day, he took full advantage of an early error by Edwin van der Sar to give United an advantage they never lost at Craven Cottage.
Indeed, while Fulham twice hit the bar, United's only real nervous moments came after substitute Steve Marlet had struck with two minutes left.
And so Ferguson, who has rather unhelpfully cast renewed doubts over his intention to quit at the end of the season, nevertheless saw his side hold on for their fifth consecutive league win.
If reports are true that he has told his players he will not go if they fail to win a trophy, then it is becoming increasingly likely that he will indeed leave.
For only a fool would dismiss United's title chances now, with the champions just three points off the top of the table even after a relative crisis.
Despite having sold Andy Cole, whose name was chanted at one stage by fans who also curiously continue to sing in praise of Eric Cantona, they have considerable strength in depth
While Beckham returned after his 'winter break', it was Juan Sebastian Veron who missed out while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to the bench.
To accommodate Beckham, Ferguson restored van Nistelrooy to a lone striking role but it was Giggs and not Paul Scholes who was asked to roam menacingly behind him.
While Beckham's first touches went astray as he struggled to find rhythm and
Louis Saha thundered a shot against the bar, it was the Welshman who seized on a goalkeeping error that would have made Fabien Barthez blush.
Van der Sar raced out of his area to clear a long ball by Scholes but his weak volley was deflected only as far as Giggs, who rolled the ball into the unguarded net from just outside the penalty area.
To their credit, Fulham retained their commitment to a neat passing game but they had previously scored just twice in December and they again lacked penetration.
Barry Hayles was the next to strike the bar, while Barthez tipped two efforts by Steed Malbranque over the bar and also dived at the Frenchman's feet as he burst through.
However, while Fulham dominated possession, United still threatened on the break as van Nistelrooy, Laurent Blanc and Nicky Butt all went close.
Indeed, with an increasing grip on central midfield, there was little surprise when Giggs' persistence won the ball off Andy Melville on the halfway line.
After exchanging passes with van Nistelrooy, he crossed for the Dutchman to volley home and that should have been it as the interval beckoned.
But however hard-working United's defence may have been, the back four remain brittle enough to give any opposition room for hope.
Sylvain Legwinski was duly allowed space to head home John Collins' flighted free-kick on the stroke of half-time, but it took Giggs just 80 seconds of the second half to restore their two-goal cushion.
Barthez's floated free-kick was flicked on by van Nistelrooy and, with Melville caught napping for pace, Giggs superbly curled his left foot around the ball to beat van der Sar at the near post.
Van Nistelrooy uncharacteristically missed a clear opening to finish the game but Fulham continued to lack any real penetration.
Just as the crowd began chanting "have a shot" in frustration, Rufus Brevett forced his way to the byline and crossed for Marlet to convert from close range.
It was not enough, however. As the new year beckons, United are back within touching distance of the top of the table. The recovery is in full flow.
Competition: Barclays Premier League
Date: Sunday 30 December 2001
Venue: Craven Cottage, London
Referee: Dermot Gallagher
Line-up: Van der Sar; Finnan, Goma, Melville, Brevett; Malbranque, Legwinski (Davis 76'), Collins, Boa Morte; Hayles (Marlet 66'), Saha
Unused substitutes: Taylor, Ouaddou, Stolcers
Line-up: Barthez; Neville, Blanc, Silvestre, Neville; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy
Unused substitutes: Carroll, Irwin, Yorke, Wallwork, Solskjaer
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