x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Child's play for Manchester United

Robin van Persie opened his account for Manchester United in spectacular fashion, but the 3-2 win over Fulham was marred by a leg injury to Wayne Rooney that could rule him out for up to four weeks, writes Duncan Castles.

Manchester United's Robin van Persie, centre right, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Fulham. Jon Super / AP Photo
Manchester United's Robin van Persie, centre right, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Fulham. Jon Super / AP Photo

By his own admission it was the "little boy" in Robin van Persie that brought him to Old Trafford when greater material reward was available elsewhere. His first game in that stadium as a Manchester United player had plenty of childish innocence about it.

It was there in home defending that allowed Fulham the lead from their very first attempt at goal. Present again when David de Gea and Nemanja Vidic combined errantly to bring the visitors back into contention. And evident in Moussa Dembele's persistent ability to slide away from tackles as Fulham threatened a late equaliser.

If Dembele often plays with the spirit of a little boy determined to dribble his days away, Van Persie delivered the finish his inner child had dreamed of - his first shot on goal in a Manchester United shirt producing a goal of technique and beauty.

It came less than 10 minutes into the match. Patrice Evra's pacey cross took one difficult hop towards the Dutchman, who, 16 yards from the target, athletically arced his body to redirect an accelerating ball past his marker and well away from Mark Schwarzer.

"It is always good on your debut to score a goal like that," said Van Persie. "I enjoyed it."

That Van Persie's broad smile welcomed only an equaliser was down to United's absence of concentration at the other end. Fulham's first free kick was intelligently worked, Bryan Ruiz passing low across the penalty area for Damien Duff, yet the freedom the winger had to convert was the gift of lazy marking.

Sir Alex Ferguson was again forced to improvise in defence, electing to keep Michael Carrick at centre-back rather than shift Evra inside and start the newly signed Alex Buttner. Almost to a man his team appeared happier driving forward.

At right-back Rafael da Silva was especially aggressive, twice finding Fulham's net before half time. His first finish was offside, the Brazilian straying just too far upfield, after his own wing work had created an opportunity for Shinji Kagawa to clatter an upright. His second was a fine back-post header to convert Ashley Young's precise cross.

Earlier, Kagawa claimed a home debut goal, touching in from close range. If anything the Japan international had a more impressive afternoon than Van Persie, combining fluidly with new teammates as he drifted into possession all across the final third.

Kagawa's selection kept Wayne Rooney on the bench alongside Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. For all Ferguson's satisfaction at the quality of his four strikers, he has yet to combine any two of them to any effect and Rooney was only employed once Fulham had narrowed United's lead to a single goal.

Dembele, whose ability to evade or brush aside tacklers has drawn one formal offer from United and a preliminary inquiry from Real Madrid, unhinged the home rearguard allowing Matthew Briggs to cross from the left. When Vidic rose to prevent the dangerous Mladen Petric from converting, De Gea clattered into both. The ball bounced back off Vidic's heel and into an untended net.

Dembele twice came close to equalising as United's defending became more frantic. Rooney threw his body in to defend a free kick and suffered a broad, ugly gash to his right thigh when Hugo Rodallega fell blades first upon it. According to Ferguson, that injury will cost Rooney "around four weeks" of football.

For the manager it means a still longer wait to work out how to pair his longest serving striker with his newest one.


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