Manchester United 2 // Fulham 0
MANCHESTER // Mark Hughes watched his Fulham team get swept aside with the minimum of fuss by Manchester United at Old Trafford yesterday and claimed his old club could win the treble.
First-half goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia ensured United were never seriously threatened.
Victory took them 10 points clear in the Premier League ahead of a crucial week that includes Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final return leg with Chelsea and next weekend's eagerly anticipated FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley Stadium.
And while Hughes acknowledged that United still have plenty of work ahead of them to emulate the trophy treble of 1999, he knows it can be done.
"They could win everything," the Fulham manager said. "They are ticking games off and when you get to this stage of the season, they have been here, understand what needs to happen and what it takes.
"It is a big ask. Sir Alex [Ferguson] would say himself it is very difficult to do.
"But trust me, it is something they will try and achieve. Good luck to them."
If all goes to plan, United's season still has 12 games to go and will reach its conclusion in the Champions League final at Wembley on May 28.
However, their hard-to-please manager will demand far more than he saw on this afternoon. To most observers, it seemed like perfect afternoon's work ahead of two such significant tests. For Ferguson, it was a disappointment.
"It was a result but I wouldn't say it was a job well done at all," he said. "We were a bit casual and lackadaisical.
"In the first half we played some very good football and could have scored a couple more. But we became wasteful with our possession in the second and might have suffered for that."
It seemed a churlish response to his team opening up such a formidable lead on Arsenal, who play one of their two games in hand at Blackpool today.
However, Ferguson has not won so many honours by settling for second best, or avoiding big decisions, which is why Berbatov can expect to be back on the bench in midweek despite bagging his 22nd goal of the season.
"That was a great goal," said Ferguson, who made eight changes in total, although he denied he had taken Fulham lightly. "You trust the squad. It wasn't a risk when you know the players. I picked the right team."
Ferguson has already confirmed Valencia will start on Tuesday.
The Ecuador winger has stepped superbly back into the heat of combat after spending six months on the sidelines with a major knee injury.
He nodded home the loose ball after Aaron Hughes had cleared Nani's goal-bound chip, his first goal since August's Community Shield.
"Valencia is a marvellous footballer," Ferguson said. "We chose the right time to take him off and get him fresh for Tuesday. He will have an important role to play."
It was the brightest part of Ferguson's afternoon, given his well-fancied horse, What A Friend, failed to complete the Grand National, one of the biggest races in the English calendar, at Aintree in Liverpool.
"Apparently What a Friend was lying seventh three fences out," said the Scot. "But he came home tired."
Blackburn 1 // Birmingham 1
The Blackburn manager Steve Kean admitted his side missed a chance to take a “big leap” towards safety after a 1-1 draw with Birmingham. It was Rovers’ third consecutive draw and Kean said: “We’re taking little steps and we just have to keep chipping away. If all the teams around you pick up wins and you only get a point you’re massively disappointed. But today we’re probably a little bit better off than when we started.”
West Ham 0 // Bolton 3
Avram Grant was in a defiant mood despite his West Ham side facing the increasing prospect of dropping into the second tier after a 3-0 defeat at Bolton. “We have shown in the past we know how to recover and I am sure we will do so again in the last six games,” he said. Grant has promised to look into an argument between the goalkeeper Robert Green and Mark Noble. Grant said: “I do not know about it. I need to speak to them.”
Sunderland 2 // West Brom 3
Roy Hodgson is targeting three more points to keep West Brom in the Premier League. Hodgson, who dragged Fulham out of trouble three seasons ago, saw his side ease themselves seven points clear of the drop zone. “I think we will need 42 points, so 39 is a damn sight closer to 42 than 32, that’s for sure,” Hodgson said.
Tottenham 3 // Stoke 2
Harry Redknapp was delighted for Peter Crouch after he bounced back from his midweek sending off against Real Madrid by scoring two goals in Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Stoke. Said Redknapp: “It was the response I wanted and expected. I was pleased for Crouchie. I wasn’t sure whether to play him and I wasn’t sure what reaction he would get from the crowd … but they were great with him.”