A 'brilliant' season, insists Silva as Fulham wrap up after narrow defeat at Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 Fulham 1
Julian Taylor at Old Trafford
There was to be no revenge for the now infamous FA Cup defeat here a couple of months ago for Fulham. Erik Ten Hag roused the Manchester United faithful with his post-match speech, as the hosts prevailed with a 2-1 victory.
Yet, in the grander scheme of matters, a tenth place finish in the Premier League represents real value to a club who have worked diligently in all areas. United, meanwhile, confirmed third spot in what has become quite an intriguing season for them, which will come to a conclusion with an FA Cup final appearance.
Retaining a comfortable status when many had tipped the Cottagers to struggle at the wrong end of the table, amid a day of relegation high drama for a few other sides, less adept at the complexities of a long campaign, is fine consolation. The travelling fans who acclaimed boss Marco Silva at the end of the game clearly have a sense of perspective after one of the club’s better seasons for a long time.
Perhaps if Aleksandar Mitrovic hadn’t been denied from the penalty spot by United keeper David De Gea, when Fulham were already a goal in front, then the outcome might well have been different. That was, admittedly, a frustrating segment of a clash which was more compelling than one might have imagined, in front of 73,465 at a sun-baked Old Trafford.
Mitrovic, back at the venue where the red mist came down so spectacularly in the 3-1 March capitulation, meriting an eight match ban, could not atone for those events. No matter, as far as the Whites fans are concerned.
If Fulham pressed the self-destruct button previously, they were more organised this time around. Still, their failure to properly threaten on the turnovers cost them against Wembley-bound United. At the end, their boss Ten Hag, launched into a rousing state of the union address, to gear up the support ahead of the FA Cup derby summit against favourites Manchester City.
A year on from United’s worst top tier finish in 32 years, the Red Devils will take their place in the Champions League, an environment they habitually assume.
It all looked so promising for Fulham, when they took the lead in the 18th minute after United’s Marcus Rashford almost added to his 30 goal tally for the season, only to see his perfectly flighted free kick turned away by Fulham keeper Bernd Leno. However, following a corner from Willian, a simple flicked header by Kenny Tete from six yards out was all it took for the ball to elude De Gea.
And six minutes later, United took obvious encouragement when their keeper, whose future at the club is under debate, denied Silva’s men a second. Casemiro tripped Tom Cairney who had wrong footed the Brazilian just inside the penalty area. However De Gea guessed correctly to palm away Mitrovic’s tame spot kick.
Sensing a reprieve, United began to assert themselves, and Garnacho struck the Fulham crossbar.
In 38 minutes, the leveller came.
Jadon Sancho netted from close range when Fulham pair Issa Diop and Antonee Robinson failed to clear a scuffed ball around ten yards out. Sancho’s poaching instincts were sufficient to knock the ball past Leno.
United looked the more comfortable in possession against an often tetchy Cottagers after the restart and, in 54 minutes, they went ahead. Bruno Fernandes slipped through the Fulham back line, with Tete playing him onside - and the Reds midfielder clipped the ball perfectly over the advancing Leno.
With momentum carrying United, they were possessed with a greater urgency as Wembley next weekend now concentrates their minds. As competitive as Fulham were, epitomised as always by spiky Joao Palhinha, they lacked any regular spells of control.
This has been a long season for every side, Fulham included. Overall, such a lingering question is of little concern right now as Silva and his players can enjoy a well-deserved break.
“We had very good moments in this game,” said the Fulham head coach. “The season has been fantastic for this football club. Everyone said Fulham were favourites to go down but we fought for something more. But it has been a brilliant season.
“We kept our identity and my team plan, in our style and in our way.”
And, in a brief, optimistic, nod to next term, Silva added: “Now we have to keep the standards and we can’t stand still, not at this level. We have to still improve both on and off the pitch but that is normal in football.”
Ten Hag, meanwhile, noted: “It was a great save by David – we were a bit messy but got organised and caused trouble for Fulham.”
Not many teams can say the same about the west Londoners this season. After all this consistency, they can look forward with genuine encouragement for 2023/24.
Cottagers: Leno, Tete, Adarabioyo, Wilson (Solomon 65), Mitrovic (Vinicius 78), Cairney (James 78), Willian, Palhinha, Lukic (Reed 65), Diop, Robinson