Even a clown car sometimes runs in a straight line. Fulham were marginally the better side here, had more of the shots and more of the creativity in the final third, won more of the big challenges, played with more confidence and courage. All of which they contrived to undo in about 15 seconds of pure catastrophe in the final minute of the game, a routine clearing of the lines that they somehow managed to turn into a kind of anarchic performance art.
And through it all, lurking on the edge of things, waiting for his moment, was Bruno Fernandes. Through the years of pain and punishment, the indignities and the disgraces, the aimless days and the listless nights, Bruno has always been there. Bruno, with his outrageous talent and his talent for outrage. Bruno, the lightning rod of rage and the heart of dysfunction, the storm and the man who can calm the storm. And admittedly, the man who can occasionally jog around for 90 minutes pretending the storm is none of his business.
Fulham 0-1 Manchester United: Premier League – liveRead more
Bruno was always there, even if sometimes it didn’t feel like it made much of a difference, even if there were people who didn’t want him to be. For all his faults he has long been the restless, festering energy at the heart of this wretched football club: not something perfect, but something real. This was his third goal of the season, and all three have been winners. And here it was, his curling shot in the 91st minute that settled a game that frankly had every right to remain scoreless.
Of course, he did not win this game on his own. Facundo Pellistri transformed United’s right flank when he came on as substitute for Antony. Diogo Dalot made a crucial interception in the first half and André Onana made two big saves in the second. Aaron Wan-Bissaka remains unrivalled at clearing up the dangerous situations created by Aaron Wan-Bissaka. But ultimately this was Bruno’s hour: the game’s unreliable narrator, its Rosebud, the man capable of taking a long boring trip back up the M6 and turning it into a thrashing festival of song.
As for Fulham, this was a game they would probably have won with a decent striker. Rodrigo Muniz made his first league start of the season here, went off in tears after suffering yet another injury, and so the great gaping hole where Aleksandar Mitrovic once stood remains unfilled. Harry Wilson and João Palhinha had good chances, Willian shuffled and scuttled around, Alex Iwobi had a storming game in midfield, but ultimately it came down to killer instinct. Fulham still don’t have it. United, for all the things have forgotten, still just about have theirs.
Bernd Leno fails to keep out Bruno Fernandes’s shot. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
They might have been ahead early on, but Scott McTominay’s goal was ruled out for offside against Harry Maguire, who lunged at the ball without making contact. Was Maguire affecting play? Is Maguire ever really affecting play? After several minutes of existential contemplation, John Brooks chalked off the goal. And to be fair to Maguire he had a pretty good game, not just as a gripping and grappling presence at the back but also – more worryingly – as one of United’s main sources of creativity.
“Attack, attack, attack, attack, attack,” chanted the United fans. So Maguire would pump a long missile up to Rasmus Højlund and Fernandes would try to pick up the second ball. It was, at least, a plan. Meanwhile Wilson was having a superb game on the Fulham right. Højlund and Tim Ream were having a duel straight out of the Marvel Comic Universe. Palhinha – a £15m player surely worth £100m by now – was the best midfielder on the pitch by an embarrassingly wide margin. Antony – a £100m player surely worth £15m now – was just sort of existing.
But as the missed chances began to pile up, you could sense a certain tension in Fulham, a presage of the very fate they were trying to avoid. As Antonee Robinson played the ball back towards his own goal Pellistri sensed it too, charging down Palhinha and forcing a rushed clearance that hit Ream, and then another that dribbled straight to Fernandes.
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Fernandes got the ball back from Pellistri, shuffled the ball on to his right foot and picked his spot. It doesn’t make everything better again. It doesn’t make United good. But when the wider war is being calamitously lost, you have to take your little victories when you can.
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A final word to the Fulham fans, who devised pretty much the politest protest ever seen at a Premier League ground, even if it sprang from a deep well of resentment. A sea of yellow cards appeared around the ground in the 18th minute, as supporters expressed their disgust at the 18% rise in season ticket prices that is Shahid and Tony Khan’s latest attempt to turn Craven Cottage into the exclusive playground of the rich. United may have picked their pockets yesterday. But their own club has arguably been pulling off the same trick for years.