The biggest attendance in Premier League history rose to acclaim Ruud van Nistelrooy as Manchester United strode to the summit for the first time this season.
In front of 67,706 largely adoring fans, the prolific Dutchman netted his second hat-trick of another goal-saturated campaign, which included a solo effort the like of which even Old Trafford's Theatre of Dreams has rarely been privileged to witness.
Faced with a mass of white shirts when he picked up possession midway through the second half in a seingly innocuous position close to the halfway line, van Nistelrooy spotted a gap, brushed off Sylvain Legwinski, then beat another five Fulham defenders as he charged into the box. The £18.5million hit-man strode on, then opened up the angle to beat impressive Cottagers keeper Maik Taylor with a clinical finish.
It was van Nistelrooy's 31st strike of another prolific season and there was still another to follow as he tapped home a close-range effort from Ryan Giggs' cross in the final minute to complete a magnificent individual display, whichalso turned up the heat on Arsenal.
No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson will be an interested television viewer tomorrow when the Highbury outfit entertain Everton bidding to erase the memory of their unexpected Champions League exit this week.
Regardless of the result though, the master motivator knows the force is with his side as the season enters its final crucial phase, the championship chase swinging dramatically back in United's favour of his side, who trailed Arsene Wenger's men by eight points at the beginning of the month.
While the psychological battle between Ferguson and Wenger has been buildingby the day, it is what happens on the pitch which remains paramount, which onlye mphasised United's need for victory.
Ferguson, like Wenger, knows eight successive wins from now until the end of the season will be enough to land the title and with Newcastle also hanging around, the margin for error is slight.
That was why a series of blown United chances in the opening half hour brought larger than usual howls of disbelief from the home support.
Against a ponderous Fulham defence, van Nistelrooy twice turned into space andlaunched fierce angled shots Taylor did well to keep out.
The Cottagers keeper also did brilliantly to keep out a close-range John O'Shea effort which probably should have ended up in the net and when Taylor did blunder, spilling a David Beckham cross under pressure from van Nistelrooy, skipper Andy Melville came to his aid, booting Ryan Giggs' stubbed shot off theline when really he should have been given no opportunity to do so.
Not that Fulham were entirely without hope in a game which was liberally refereed by Steve Bennett, to the consternation of both sets of players who felt a succession of fouls were going unpunished.
The visitors failed to take the lead by the width of the crossbar, onto which Martin Djetou's powerful drive cannoned after deflecting into Gary Neville.
Luis Boa Morte and Louis Saha also went close Jean Tigana's side.
Largely though, the play flowed one way, even if the home side could not take full advantage of the gaping holes which kept appearing in the Cottagers' midfield.
Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked particularly threatening, as did Beckham who floated around looking to inspire an opening.
The impression though has lingered that van Nistelrooy has not been quite aseffective in his second season of English football as he was in the first.
Yet a look at his goalscoring record suggests, he has actually been better.
There is nothing wrong with the Dutchman's nerve either, so, when presented with his penalty chance a minute before the break when Solskjaer was tugged back byZat Knight, few expected him to miss and he did not disappoint the masses.
If his tally for the campaign contains a higher percentage of penalties thanwould normally be expected, his second effort this afternoon should ensure italso contains a certain goal of the season candidate.
Amazingly, van Nistelrooy nearly netted a replica in the latter stages,spurning better placed team-mates in an effort to seal a brilliant hat-trickwhich Taylor this time managed to thwart.
The Dutchman was not to be denied though and when Giggs sent over a left-wing cross in the final minute, van Nistelrooy was on hand to tap home to complete a perfect day.