Wayne Rooney scored on his return from injury as champions Manchester United crushed Fulham 3-0 at Old Trafford on Wednesday to surge five points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.
The England striker,back in action after a month out with a hamstring injury,came on as a 61st minute substitute and scored from close range with his first touch of the game barely two minutes later to send United 3-0 up.
Paul Scholes had volleyed United into the lead off a Michael Carrick corner in the 12th minute,with Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer getting down to the shot only for the ball to bobble over the line.
Dimitar Berbatov then doubled the tally 17 minutes later with a tap in.
United now have 59 points to Liverpool’s 54 and third placed Aston Villa’s 51 after 25 matches. Chelsea,their title chances dismissed by United manager Alex Ferguson in the pre-match programme,are fourth on 49 with 13 games remaining.
Fulham,who have yet to win away from home in the league this season,remained in 10th place with 30 points from 24 games.
“Getting the early goal always helps at home and it opened the game for us,” Ferguson told Sky Sports television.
“We didn’t take any risks with Wayne,” he added after United’s ninth straight league win.
“At this stage of the season we cannot take any risks. We had to make sure he was 100 per cent. I could have played him on Sunday but I felt wait a few days and we’ll get the dividends of that…and we got that tonight.”
Berbatov,who made way for Rooney after the break,also had a shot cleared off the line in the 18th minute and another headed effort ruled offside on the stroke of half-time.
With United in complete control,Fulham never looked like troubling their former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar who took his record unbeaten run to 14 successive league games dating back to defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Nov. 8.
United slowed the pace after Rooney’s goal and Fulham,with two more games to come before the week is out,seemed content to play along.
The visitors’ best chance came when Bobby Zamora poked a shot narrowly wide in the 66th.
“It’s hard to come back from a blow like that,” Fulham manager Roy Hodgson said of Scholes’ opener. “Throughout the game I thought United played superbly.
“I think this is one where we just have to accept defeat gracefully,congratulate the better team on the three points and to make certain it doesn’t do any lasting damage.