Fresh from Wednesday evening’s success in Basel, Fulham returned home to put champions Manchester United to the sword with a confident and imperious performance that rarely allowed the visitors to threaten with any real danger.
Roy Hodgson made just a couple of changes from the side that triumphed in Basel, with Chris Baird stepping into midfield in place of Dickson Etuhu, and Damien Duff and Clint Dempsey taking their place on the right and left flanks respectively.
In some scrappy early exchanges both sides appeared to take time to find their stride, or the space to create any meaningful incision.
United made a claim for a penalty early on as Valencia tumbled in the area after a light tussle with Konchesky, but as a cross from the left flew over the box, referee Howard Webb waved away any hopeful appeals.
As both sides looked to find some space in an initially cagey encounter, Paul Scholes became the first name in the referee’s book for an over enthusiastic slide tackle on Damien Duff in the middle of the park.
Soon after, Fulham began to impose themselves on the game, putting pressure on the visiting defence, and forcing the visitors to attack on the counter. From one such movement Wayne Rooney attempted to catch Mark Schwarzer off his line, but his effort from 40 yards was easily caught by the Aussie.
However, the game sprung to life on the quarter hour. Firstly, Dempsey forced the first real save of the match. Fulham caught United out down the right and Zamora broke into the box. The on-form striker’s attempted cross was deflected upwards by De Laet and, as it fell, the American attempted and acrobatic overhead effort which, after deflecting off of Michael Carrick, was clawed away by Kuszcak.
Moments later came a well crafted manoeuvre in which Dempsey played a floated pass from deep on the left into the box, Zamora chested the ball into the path of the in-running in Gera whose right side footed volley had to be spectacularly tipped over by the keeper.
Duff was next to cause panic in the United ranks as he sped into the box from the right. Faced by two defenders, the Irishman tried to roll over a cross, and it was almost deflected into the goal by Carrick, but instead hit the side netting.
But on 21 minutes Fulham scored the goal that had been coming. Danny Murphy caught Paul Scholes napping on the edge of the centre circle, dispossessing his long-time Premier League midfield rival before advancing forward unchallenged. The Whites skipper had the time to pick his spot and played a bouncing low shot into the bottom right corner of the United goal, continuing his uncanny career-long record of scoring against the Red Devils.
Rocked by the goal, the visitors tried to hit back, and on 28 minutes Darron Gibson had their first true shot on target, driving low from the edge of the box, but it barely troubled Schwarzer who easily took the rolling ball in his arms.
Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey were particularly lively and the two combined to create another great chance on 30 minutes. After some sustained pressure on the right, John Pantsil played a swerving cross which Dempsey headed downwards to Gera on the edge of the six-yard box. The Hungarian, under pressure, cut back a high chipped pass which Zamora met with his head. However, Fletcher did enough to distract the striker from directing his effort on target.
United’s response at the other end saw Rooney fire over again from outside the box, as the Whites’ defence refused to allow their oppressors to pass their way through. Anderson also had a hopeful effort fly wide before the half was out, as the Red Devils desperately tried to level.
Alex Ferguson no doubt read the riot act to his struggling charges at half-time, but any impact his infamous hairdryer treatment may have had was quickly neutralised as Fulham doubled their advantage within 30 seconds of the restart. Duff made it to the by-line down the right and played a long, high cross to the back post. Clint Dempsey beat his marker in the air, to knock the ball down to the penalty spot, where Zamorawas waiting to smash in Fulham’s second.
With Craven Cottage rocking, United had no choice but to try and silence their hosts, and Antonio Valencia attempted just that when he cut in from the United right to sting Schwarzer’s hands with a low drive.
But it was Fulham that had the momentum and after another confident passing move, Konchesky squared the ball from the left to Gera who rasped a swerving drive which flew only narrowly over.
Just before the hour Ferguson made two changes in an attempt to change the course of the game, bringing on Dimitar Berbatov and young Brazilian Fabio Da Silva for Gibson and Richie De Laet.
The switch initially appeared to have an immediate impact as Berbatov was heavily involved in a United attack that followed. However, after a number of neat passes around the penalty area, Rooney could only lash a shot-come-cross wildly across goal and out for a goal kick.
At the other end, Zamora attempted to double his personal tally after collecting a knockdown from Gera - revelling in his role behind the lone striker - and powering a half volley, which fizzed over.
Searching for answers, as in the corresponding fixture last season the Red Devils became increasingly frustrated, and Anderson became the second player booked for a foul on Duff.
And from the resulting free-kick Fulham dealt a killer blow. From deep in his own half, Brede Hangeland played a high swinging pass to the edge of the area. Zamora controlled the ball with his head and then knocked it exquisitely into the path of Duff, who struck a sweet left foot volley which beat Kuszcak for the third time.
Although they worked hard to the last, the champions appeared to have few answers to the questions posed of them by a Fulham side satisfied with their lead, and becoming all the more conservative in their approach to the game. It became another occasion for the home fans to enjoy, as the Whites passed the ball around with confidence, and never looked threatened by their big name opponents.
As the game drew to a close, undoubted man of the match Bobby Zamora, even had a chance to deliver more Christmas cheer when he took a ball over the top and advanced on goal. Under pressure he fired a strong shot low to Kuszcak’s right, but this time the Pole was able to get both hands on the powerful strike.
It was the last moment of note on another truly memorable afternoon at Craven Cottage.