Manchester United regained top spot in the Premier League with victory at Fulham as they responded to the challenge set by Manchester City earlier on Wednesday.
United started slowly and were caught napping as Ademola Lookman opened the scoring in the fifth minute, rifling in from Andre-Frank Anguissa’s fantastic through-ball.
But the lead lasted just 16 minutes, as Edinson Cavani reacted fastest to Alphonse Areola’s poor push-out to fire in from point-blank range.
The two sides entered half-time all square and it took until Paul Pogba’s moment of magic in the 65th minute for either side to edge in front. The midfielder picked up the ball on the right of the box, shifted inside and fired a sublime effort into the far corner with what proved to be the winner.
The result means United return to the Premier League’s summit with a two-point lead, despite title rivals Leicester and Manchester City battling to 2-0 wins over Chelsea and Aston Villa respectively earlier this week.
Here are five talking points from Craven Cottage.
1. Fernandes’ milestone appearance
As usual, Bruno Fernandes was at the centre of the action for Manchester United and picked up another assist to add to his plunder.
Making his 50th appearance for the Red Devils, Fernandes hammered the post moments before his cross was parried by Alphonse Areola into Edinson Cavani’s path for the equaliser.
The Portuguese then stung Areola’s palms with a vicious shot from range, while he was without doubt United’s most threatening player in unlocking an organised Fulham defence in the second half and went close to scoring himself.
Fernandes has amassed 27 goals and 18 assists less than 12 months after sealing his £47million move from Sporting last January. His importance to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side simply cannot be overstated.
2. United revert to away-game habit
It was an impressive run which showed the character and spirit in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad; it was also an unwanted record which hinted at sloppiness in the opening stages of away fixtures – sloppiness which reared its head once again at Craven Cottage.
With just five minutes played, United’s defenders were caught flat-footed as Andre-Frank Anguissa carved them open with a through-ball.
As the visitors appealed for offside, Ademola Lookman ran onto the ball and was was allowed acres of space and time in the box to pick his spot and rifle into the bottom corner.
Replays showed both Aaron Wan-Bissaka was playing the goalscorer onside and laid bare the huge gap between United’s centre-backs.
The early complacency was a marked contrast to United’s previous three away games, during which they started with intensity to draw at Leicester and Liverpool, and win at Burnley.
Recent battling performances on the road combined with four wins from five at home have propelled United to Premier League title-contender status.
The Red Devils may have edged to victory at Fulham, but Solskjaer will want his side to start away games with 100 per cent intensity if they are to remain in the title conversation.
3. Another role change for magical Pogba
After starting on the right flank for the trip to Liverpool last Sunday, Paul Pogba reverted to a more natural holding midfield role against Fulham.
The Frenchman partnered Fred and the pair had fairly quiet first halves as United took a while to warm up in west London.
By the end of the opening 45 minutes the Red Devils had asserted their dominance in midfield and looked likely to take the lead.
But Fulham held on until half-time and arguably started the second half the better of the two teams, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek producing a particularly impressive performance.
But Pogba – eight days after he scored the winner at Burnley – produced yet another timely reminder of his importance with a magical effort.
Cutting in from the right of the penalty area, he shimmied away from the challenge of two Fulham players, settled himself and let loose with his weak foot.
It was a sublime moment which reminded to make the most of watching Pogba week in, week out ahead of his likely departure this summer.
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4. Tireless Cavani
Into the lineup came defender Eric Bailly and forwards Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood in place of Victor Lindelof, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay.
Quizzed on the reasoning for his changes, Solskaer told MUTV : “Freshen things up.
“All three will have an impact tonight, they’ve been in good form, we’re waiting for Mason to kick on and Eric and Edi have been playing really well.”
Cavani certainly “freshened things up” and he was typically tireless and dangerous against the Cottagers.
The 33-year-old didn’t give the Fulham back line a moment of peace all evening and took his goal like a true poacher, punishing the poor push-out of his former PSG teammate Alphonse Areola.
5. Hope for the Cottagers
Having lost seven of their first nine Premier League games of the season, Fulham went into the fixture with Manchester United just one defeat in their their last six.
In that time, they conceded four goals and took points off Tottenham and Liverpool, while Chelsea needed over half an hour playing against 10 men to edge their way to a 1-0 win last Saturday.
Fulham’s dire start to the season led many to assume they were destined to drop straight back down to the Championship.
But Scott Parker’s tactical changes mean the Cottagers may now believe they can avoid the drop.
The resolute 5-3-2 has proved extremely hard to break down in recent weeks and United struggled to find a way through their organised hosts.
Fulham’s improvements have also been felt going forward, with the likes of Ademola Lookman, Ivan Cavaleiro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek dynamic off the ball and threatening with it.
Of course, the result didn’t go their way. But remember Edinson Cavani’s equaliser came from a goalkeeping error and Paul Pogba’s winner was about as fine a strike as you’ll see all season.
There is hope for Fulham.
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