|Michael Carrick celebrates his goal with Adnan Januzaj (right) and
Robin van Persie, at Old Trafford, on Sunday. (Getty Images)
London: Darren Bent’s last-gasp equaliser earned Fulham a 2-2 draw at Manchester United and left the champions shattered after they thought they had saved themselves from another desperate day.
Trailing to Steve Sidwell’s first-half opener, United’s search for redemption lasted until the 79th minute — and then Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick struck within the space of 120 seconds to turn the match on its head.
Carrick’s goal brought Wayne Rooney to his knees in celebration and had manager David Moyes punching the air with relief. But United were stunned in the fourth minute of stoppage time as David De Gea parried Kieran Richardson’s shot into the path of substitute Bent, who nodded into an empty net.
Now it was former United assistant Rene Meulensteen’s turn to punch the air as his side, rock bottom of the Premier League and five points adrift of safety at kick-off, snatched a precious point.
For Moyes and United, now nine points away from a Champions League place, the season just keeps getting worse. And with a visit to Arsenal on Wednesday, there is no end to the trouble in sight.
Moyes admitted in the build-up that Meulensteen knew more about the home players than he did, something that can only be expected after the Dutchman spent six years as Alex Ferguson’s assistant until last summer.
What was less obvious was the Dutchman’s method of taking advantage of that inside knowledge. In axing Scott Parker and Brede Hangeland and placing his faith in 18-year-old debutant Muamer Tankovic and midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe, he was injecting his side with the vitality so obviously lacking over an eight-game run that brought just a single win.
So while the visitors required a scrapper’s instinct to survive the inevitable bombardment, it meant they had the pace to exert pressure on their hosts when the counter-attacking opportunities came.
Lewis Holtby was the inspiration behind the visitors’ opener. Allowed far too much room to advance down the left flank, Holtby was able to drop a superb cross into the heart of United’s penalty area. Nemanja Vidic had been pulled out of possession and, as neither Darren Fletcher nor Juan Mata had tracked Sidwell’s run, the midfielder was able to slide the ball past a stranded De Gea with a degree of comfort.
It was the first time Fulham had scored an opening goal since December — and they should have scored more. Holtby created a golden chance for Richardson, but the former Red Devils man blazed over. Then Richardson scorched past Vidic, only for Wayne Rooney to intercept a cut-back that looked certain to set up Holtby.
In a season of shattering blows, Meulensteen looked set to inflict the heaviest of all, but United were creating chances. Maarten Stekelenburg superbly denied Carrick’s thunderbolt and powerful Vidic header, while Van Persie failed to snaffle a half-chance at the near post.
The attacking instinct that has terrorised so many opponents down the years was missing from the hosts’ game. When Fletcher lifted the ball deep into the area for Van Persie to head into the six-yard box, no one had gambled and Fulham were able to clear with ease.
A rather desperate claim for handball by Van Persie emphasised the concern starting to grip Old Trafford. Adnan Januzaj’s introduction for Fletcher, followed by the arrivals of Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia, meant United had six offensive players trying to score against a team that had kept just four clean sheets all season.