More media reaction

Monday 20 August 2001

Fulham striker Louis Saha today said that he was disappointed to have only scored twice against Premiership champions Manchester United at Old Trafford.

His performance earned him glowing tributes from his opponents and looked like it would give Jean Tigana's team a dream start to the season before they went down 3-2.

Fulham took the lead twice when Saha finished coolly at the beginning of each half and United's Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose own two-goal response won the points for United, said: "He is a brilliant player with a great talent and a bright future."

But Saha, who was Division One's top scorer with 27 League goals last season, said: "I was disappointed because I missed chances.

"Once I almost missed the ball completely when I was on my own in the penalty area and I had another chance with my head.

"Barry Hayles missed one as well and I think those misses in the first half were the key to the game. At the top level you have to score more of your chances. You rarely get the chance to score so many goals at Old Trafford and I think it would have been difficult for them to come back if they had gone 3-0 down."

Saha's self-criticism is an indication of the ambition there is at Fulham this season as well as the quality of their first-half showing. The 23-yearolddid miss two good scoring opportunities in the first 30 minutes but converted the other two opportunities he had and his goals were of the highest calibre.

United defender Mikael Silvestre said: "Saha is stronger than ever and will annoy more than one defender this season. Fulham have progressed since last campaign and gave us a bit of a wake-up call."

Saha added: "It is great to play at this level and against exciting players like David Beckham and Juan Veron.

"Maybe it was important to play against United at the start of the season because they gave us more space to play in attack.

"But I will take some confidence from the game, especially because I scored past Barthez and he is a great goalkeeper. I don't want to stop there though, I want to keep going."

More from the Standard...

We came to witness a living cliche - a baptism of fire for Fulham, drawn to play Manchester United at Old Trafford on their first day back in the top flight for 33 years. Instead it was the the champions whose faces were red from the heat of the flames, not to mention embarrassment.

Three years ago Fulham humbly opened their campaign a few miles down the road at Macclesfield. This time they journeyed from the Cottage to the very cathedral of football in one confident stride.

The Mancunian congregation who had gathered for Sunday worship were just launching into a chorus of "Hello, hello" when the Londoners came up with a rather more memorable form of greeting four minutes into the match.

Louis Saha latched on to Sean Davis's long ball and everybody in the United defence seemed to leave matters to everybody else. For the second successive Sunday, a striker found himself minutes into the match with only Gary Neville and Fabien Barthez to beat and, for the second successive Sunday, the striker in question embarrassed them both.

The Fulham fans leapt up and, for a moment, you could see them hesitate, looking around at one another just to check this was not a form of personal insanity, that they really were a goal up. It was easy to permit them their momentary disbelief, since 65,000 others were feeling approximately the same.

Ten minutes later Saha could have scored another if Mikael Silvestre had not saved the day.

Up the other end Ruud van Nistelrooy was neutralised what seemed a hundred times courtesy of the offside trap, while an extraordinary looping chip from David Beckham was tipped over by Edwin Van der Sar, and Paul Scholes hit the woodwork after a thrilling run by Ryan Giggs. It was end-to-end stuff but United were always going to equalise.

Beckham might not realise his wish to go through manager Alex Ferguson's valedictory campaign without defeat but, for as long as van Nistelrooy is in the line-up, it is already difficult to envisage 90 minutes without a goal.

That said it was Beckham who levelled the match 10 minutes before half-time with a 25-yard free-kick. It was just a pity that the alleged foul on Giggs which prompted it was, in fact, an excellent tackle by Steve Finnan.

Just before half-time Van der Sar made a brilliant save with his feet from a low, powerful Scholes strike, and the newcomers made it to halftime with their confidence intact. Minutes after the break it was in orbit when Saha ran on to Steed Malbranque's through ball to make the score 2-1. Quite absurd.

But it was too much to hope that van Nistelrooy would play no effective part for the entire match. He turned the game around with two poacher's goals in the 51st and 53rd minutes, and truth be told the blazing light of this game was dimmed just a little from then on. Yet in many regards it did not matter. Fulham put down their Premiership marker and it was great to see.

Interesting to reflect on the difference between this and England's dispiriting defeat five days previously.

Both England and Fulham lost to sides who were innately superior, yet there the resemblance ends. Fulham emerged not as the clumsy country cousins uncertain which fork to use when dining at the aristocrats' table, but as a crowd of urban sophisticates.

Where England could not puzzle Holland out or adapt to their tactics, Fulham took the match to United and left their defence bamboozled. Ferguson was sufficiently angry to pay the Londoners the rarest of compliments.

"We were fortunate to win," he said frankly. "We squeezed through because van Nistelrooy made his second goal out of nothing. Our defence was sluggish and casual. Only our ability to score goals got us out of jail."

Other teams will be on the wrong end of van Nistelrooy's devastating ability to far worse effect this season. But Fulham manager Jean Tigana still permitted himself a smile afterwards, although perhaps it was his own charmingly mangled English which caused him amusement.

"We deserved a point," he agreed. "In the first half we had many chances to kill the game. But I need 15 games before I can say what this means for us in the Premiership. I just want them to keep playing. Don't worry, I say to them. They played not too bad today."

In fact, it was United who overturned the form book, did they but know it. It is 10 years since Fulham last lost on the opening day of the season, to Chester City. Just one team got its nose bloodied at Old Trafford yesterday. Only the scoreline, and United's red shirts, disguised the evidence.