Ful of it

Monday 20 August 2001

The Times

The summer conference of Premiership chairmen was off and running some weeks ago when it was interrupted by the roar of a helicopter landing on the lawn outside.

A few minutes later, the doors were thrown open and Mohamed Al Fayed strode in like a visiting potentate. His team made a similarly grand entrance to the top flight yesterday before Ruud van Nistelrooy slammed the doors shut.

The Holland striker's two goals in three minutes - four in total in a busy week for club and country - killed off Fulham's challenge at Old Trafford but not before they had proved that they will be a wonderful addition to the FA Barclaycard Premiership.

Twice they took the lead through the brilliance of Louis Saha and, even faced with the onslaught of a United comeback, attempted to entertain. "Stress? Me, never," Jean Tigana, their manager, said. He talks, and his team plays, with an infectious smile.

Tigana claimed that his team deserved a point from their first game in the top division since 1968, and Sir Alex Ferguson could only concur.

The United manager's delight with Van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastián Verón was marred by his anger at more sloppy defending, and added credence to his pre-match revelation that the big regret of the summer was failing to lure Lilian Thuram.

The France defender opted for Juventus ahead of United and, from the evidence of two successive Sundays, he could be the missing link which will ensure that, when it comes to the big European nights, the English champions continue to fall just short.

After their torture by Michael Owen, Jaap Stam and Gary Neville were outmanoeuvred by Saha and Barry Hayles, and Ferguson ended up throwing on Wes Brown for the final 11 minutes, such was his concern at a late slip.

"It is not as if we are being sliced open with great passing or dribbling," Ferguson said. "They are just coming through us and we will have problems until we get it right."

Ferguson spoke of "sluggishness" among his back line and it was exposed after just three minutes when Fulham's campaign got off to a remarkable start. Saha had drifted away from Neville but he still had plenty of work to do when Sean Davis picked him out with a well-judged chip.

The ball was dropping over his shoulder but Saha managed to control it and, as Fabien Barthez stood in no-man's land, the striker lobbed it over him for a wonderful goal.

It is a measure of United's attacking potency that they should twice come went close to an equaliser in the first 20 minutes, even though they were short of their best. Edwin van der Sar arched his back to save brilliantly from David Beckham's dipping shot and Paul Scholes hit the crossbar after a 70-yard dash by Ryan Giggs.

Phil Neville, who had started as an unlikely accomplice to Verón in the centre of the field, made way to allow an early reshuffle in which Scholes dropped deeper and Andrew Cole came into a more conventional attack.

Within a few seconds of the substitution, United were level but the goal owed less to the change in tactics than a large dose of fortune. Steve Finnan's tackle on Giggs 20 yards from goal looked legitimate on first viewing and numerous replays failed to show the illegality as Giggs turned away with the ball.

Tigana was sanguine even though the decision allowed Beckham to score from a free kick via the underside of the crossbar. "When you play the big teams, the referee is under a big pressure," Tigana said. "I know beause I have played for big teams and I have taken advantage before."

Ferguson tried to "settle down" his side during the interval but whatever he said appeared to have made little difference as Fulham quickly regained the lead. Again it was Saha's pace and precision that was their undoing as the forward outpaced Gary Neville and slid a low shot past Barthez. "France has Henry, Trezeguet and many great strikers," Tigana said, "but Saha has the qualities to get into the side."

Even with Verón such a captivating presence at the heart of the United midfield as he glided around the field replete with feints and flicks, the champions could not quite eradicate the glitches. But there is nothing more dangerous than a Ferguson team with its backs to the wall.

The weight of attacking power is too strong for most teams to resist and, having taken the lead for the second time, it was probably inevitable that Fulham would begin to retreat too deeply. United took advantage as Van Nistelrooy pounced for his first Premiership goals.

His performance had been solid but unspectacular but he took his only two chances of the game, which explains why he is worth more than £18 million.

Lifting the first over Van der Sar after a clever overhead pass by Cole, he prodded in the second from close range when Hayles caused confusion by heading Beckham's deep cross back into his own area. "We always know we can score and it got us out of jail," Ferguson said. "It is a great quality but one day we will get caught."

It was an unsettling day at the office for United and yet Roy Keane was suspended, Dwight Yorke not even on the bench and there is sure to be improvement from Stam, who seems unsettled by the recent furore over his book.

A narrow victory for United but a win all the same; Fulham won plenty of friends but no points.

The Independent

"You lucky people," was the catchphrase of Tommy Trinder, who, when Fulham last played top-flight football, combined music-hall comedy with chairing their board, and yesterday it applied to everyone who witnessed the extraordinary beginning to Sir Alex Ferguson's long goodbye.

The Theatre of Dreams provided entertainment worthy of Trinder's spiritual home, the London Palladium, but it was Manchester United's fans, many of whom chose to leave dispiritingly early, who had most reason to feel fortunate. They had witnessed a marvellous spectacle and one they might easily have lost.

When Newcastle came to Old Trafford to open United's season last August, their manager, Bobby Robson, who was at the helm at Craven Cottage when they sank out of the top flight in 1968, virtually wrote the match off, claiming he did not have the resources to compete.

Jean Tigana's approach was entirely different. Sean Davis, who made his Fulham debut when overnight stops in Manchester involved a match at Macclesfield the next day, stated his team would show no fear and they unnerved United relentlessly through the pace and coolness of Louis Saha, who graduated in the same French youth sides as Nicolas Anelka, and the bustle of Barry Hayles, a former carpenter who once led the line for Stevenage Borough.

Only United's knack of creating chances and Ruud van Nistelrooy's ability to convert them ensured they escaped with victory.

''There seems to be a sluggishness about our defending," complained Ferguson. ''It is not as if they were slicing us apart with great passes. The simplest way to score against us is to play right through us and, until they get this sorted, there are going to be days like these. Our habit of scoring goals kept us alive but one day we will get caught."

Van Nistelrooy began his first Premiership match as the lone striker, playing off Paul Scholes. As Ferguson pointed out, this is the third successive time he has abandoned 4-4-2 and on each occasion United have conceded early goals.

On this occasion the tactical master plan was abandoned after 30 minutes as Andy Cole was thrown on alongside Van Nistelrooy and Scholes was withdrawn into central midfield.

It had taken Fulham barely six minutes to take the initiative as a long punt upfield was touched beautifully down by Saha and clipped over Fabien Barthez's head. Had the keeper not come rushing off his line to no great purpose, it is debatable whether Saha would have scored and, after twice forcing Barthez into snap saves, the United tactics were overhauled.

"We were 1-0 down and the game was becoming choked," said Ferguson. "We were not able to get the balls into areas we wanted and they were able to pick us off with counter-attacks. Phil Neville [who had been lined up alongside Juan Sebastian Veron] was becoming bypassed and Scholes had to be dropped into midfield."

It seemed a stroke of genius as, within 10 seconds of Cole trotting on, United were level and, although David Beckham's free-kick, which crashed into the net from the underside of Edwin van der Sar's bar from 25 yards, was a gem, United had been lucky to win it.

The tackle from Steve Finnan that stopped Ryan Giggs' electric run appeared perfectly legitimate and, judging from the way he vehemently protested to the fourth official, Tigana's command of English is now reasonably fluent.

''When you play against big teams, the referee is under pressure,'' the Fulham manager said. ''I know this because I played for a big team and I profited from referees' decisions.'' Ferguson, too, thought the award fortunate.

Logically, that should have been that. There have been many sides that have dared to take the lead against United but it is rare that, once the scores are level, they have the resources or the ability to strike back. And although Beckham had forced a spectacular tip-over from Van der Sar and Scholes had side-footed a gorgeous, floating cross from Giggs on to the post, even before the fateful free-kick, Fulham did not until late in the game show fear.

Three minutes after the restart, another through ball again caught United cold and while Gary Neville and Mickaël Silvestre panted in his wake, Saha picked his spot in the corner of Barthez's net.

Had they been able to hold on to the lead for any length of time, Fulham might have survived but, once Van Nistelrooy beat Van der Sar in the race to meet Cole's overhead flick, Ferguson thought their back four, who by the finish looked desperately weary, allowed themselves to be infected with nerves.

Three minutes later, a routine cross from Beckham was inadvertently knocked into the Dutchman's path by Hayles' head with very predictable consequences.

"We played well against United last year and lost and we played well against Liverpool and lost," Tigana sighed. "Next time, I would like to play less well and win."

Still, his chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed, who bought the club in 1997 with the aim of turning it into the "Manchester United of the south" had been royally entertained at the real thing. ''We want to become one of Europe's biggest clubs, right up there with United and Barcelona," the Fulham chairman boomed before kick-off.

"With God's will, and the guidance of Jean Tigana, there is no reason why that cannot happen." But God, as Al Fayed, was to discover, is, it seems, a Manchester United fan.

The Sun

ALEX FERGUSON slammed his defence after the Champions scraped home against newly-promoted Fulham.

The United boss said: "The defence is a concern. There is a sluggishness about us.

"There is a carelesness about it and no edge to it.
"It is not as if teams are slicing us open with great passing or dribbling. The simplest way to score against us is to play right through us. I always know we can score but one day we will be caught out. We were a bit fortunate to win.

"It is not about individuals at the back, it is a collective thing and we need to sort out our concentration and get our balance back. I know we are better than that."

Last weekend in the 2-1 Charity Shield defeat by Liverpool, they were behind within two minutes and yesterday Louis Saha got the first of his brace after four minutes.

Ferguson added: "At least we improved on last week, this time we lasted four minutes. Hopefully, we will last longer than that against Blackburn in the midweek."

While Ferguson was angry with his defence, he was delighted with Ruud van Nistelrooy's league debut as he grabbed two goals to add to David Beckham's free-kick strike.

Ferguson said: "Ruud's first goal was superb, he scored it out of nothing. It was a real goalscorers goal and that won the game for us because it put them on the back foot and they got nervous."

Ferguson was also delighted with Beckham's free-kick which drew the sides level at 1-1.

He said: "That was typical of him. It got us back into the game when we did not deserve to."

Fulham boss Jean Tigana rued his sides missed chances as they twice lead at 1-0 and 2-1 but could not hammer home their advantage.

Tigana said: "We missed chances and we have to learn from that. I know we can play at this level and we played without fear but when we create chances we have to take them in future."

The Observer

Manchester United won their opening Premiership match of the season yesterday more by habit than a design which amounted to further doodling by Sir Alex Ferguson in an effort to find the best way of using Ruud van Nistelrooy, his £19m Dutch striker.

While the United manager is making up his mind, the Dutchman can do no better than display scoring instincts which yesterday called to mind the predatory style of Denis Law. No sooner had Fulham taken the lead for a second time than Van Nistelrooy struck twice in less than three minutes to put Manchester United 3-2 in front, which was where they stayed - though not without some late anxieties.

Fulham achieved a more consistent pattern of play than United for much of a thoroughly entertaining game and had Jean Tigana's team taken more of their chances before half-time they might well have marked their first appearance in the top division for 33 years with a famous victory.

As it was they proved what most had suspected, namely that their quick-passing, intelligent football will grace the Premiership much as Ipswich's did last season.

Without the suspended Roy Keane, so often their mortice lock in midfield, United were always vulnerable to the pace through the middle of Louis Saha, who scored both Fulham's goals.

Saha enjoyed outstanding support from Steed Malbranque, the Belgian-born France Under-21 international, who with Sean Davis and John Collins achieved a quality of passing and movement which before half-time and on several occasions thereafter found United outmanoeuvred and outwitted.

Had Juan Veron, the £28m arrival from Lazio, not played for Argentina in midweek he might have brought more solidity to United's central areas; his class was evident but he was clearly tiring when Ferguson took him off after 80 minutes.

Finding a partner for Van Nistelrooy is apparently as difficult as discovering what Tiggers like for breakfast. Again Paul Scholes was asked to play off the Dutch striker and again he looked bemused in the role, his natural tendency to drop deep leaving Van Nistelrooy alone up front, a frequent victim of the offside flag.

With just over half an hour gone Ferguson brought on Andy Cole, which enabled Scholes to drop back to his normal role. Cole's support for Van Nistelrooy doubled the problem for the Fulham centre-backs and was crucial when United drew level for the second time.

Up to that moment, six minutes into the second half, it was difficult to argue with the logic of a Fulham win. Their midfield was dominant, their defence in command, and Saha had twice exploited simple but effective through-passes which had caught United square.

The first came from Davis in the third minute, a high ball which the Frenchman deftly controlled while Gary Neville stood helpless. Fabien Barthez had raced towards the edge of the penalty area, exposing himself to the simple lob with which Saha gave Fulham the lead.

Thereafter Barthez's expertise, combined with indifferent finishing, denied Fulham more goals. And while they were creating more chances, only Edwin van der Sar's save from David Beckham and the bar from Scholes prevented an equaliser.

When one did arrive, in the 35th minute, it came from a predictable source, Beckham's free-kick beating Van der Sar off the underside of the bar. There was no denying the quality of the shot but the tackle on Ryan Giggs for which Steve Finnan had been penalised looked legal.

Not that it seemed to matter, from a Fulham point of view, when Malbranque exploited Scholes's error to send Saha past the centre-backs to slip their second goal beyond Barthez's reach.

Then, in the course of three minutes, Tigana's defence twice lost its concentration and paid accordingly.

One centre from Beckham found Van Nistelrooy drawing Alain Goma away from the middle before swinging back to score from Cole's chip. Another reached the far post where Barry Hayles, under pressure, headed towards his own net, the ball ricocheting off Davis for Van Nistelrooy to tap it over the line.