Manchester United manager David Moyes was left to count the cost of a lack of a clinical edge up front as his side drew 2-2 with Fulham at Old Trafford.
Darren Bent scored a stoppage-time equaliser to salvage a draw for the struggling Cottagers, who had taken the lead through Steve Sidwell in the 19th minute.
United hit back twice in two second-half minutes through Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick and were poised to snatch the points until Bent rescued a dramatic point.
“We went out and tried to win. We crossed it, passed and tried to get through, but we didn’t quite have the finishing touches,” said Moyes. “If we had got a goal early on it would have completely altered the game.
“The more we went to score they had a couple of chances and one they went to score from. We deserved to be in front. Quite often at Old Trafford, we lose a goal and end up chasing the game. We deserved to win the game and three points, but you don’t always get what you deserve. We kept knocking at the door, but it wasn’t enough.”
The draw leaves Manchester United nine points adrift of Liverpool in fourth place and 15 behind Barclays Premier League leaders Chelsea.
Under-pressure Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen’s side remain bottom of the table, but the point puts them four adrift of Sunderland who occupy the last safe position in 17th.
Meulensteen was relieved to have claimed a point after United’s comeback. “We made it difficult for them,” he said. “United have got some problems of their own. They kept creating chances and crosses, but we defended well and held them. We thought at the end it was going to slip away – all of the hard work that we had done – but at the end to score that it felt like a winner.
“It was definitely intentional to stay deep. When you are in a situation like this you know confidence is not the highest and something down the line has to give. We focused on keening our shape and we defended well. The important things is we got a point. Some people classified us as dead and buried.”
Moyes admitted in the build-up that Meulensteen knew more about the home players than he did, something that can only be expected after spending six years as Sir 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 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 cutback that looked certain to set up Holtby. In a season of shattering blows, Meulensteen looked set to inflict the heaviest of all.
United were creating chances. Maarten Stekelenburg superbly denied Carrick’s thunderbolt and powerful Vidic header. Van Persie failed to snaffle a half-chance at the near post. Even John Arne Riise came close with a chested clearance to an Ashley Young cross that was far too close to Stekelenburg’s goal for comfort.
But that 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 against John Heitinga 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. Really, United could not fail to score.
It was noticeable the accompaniment to Van Persie tucking home Juan Mata’s cross at the far post was merely to lead a charge back to halfway, knowing the job was only half done. When Carrick’s shot looped in off Parker a couple of minutes later it seemed something was finally going to go Moyes’s way. The Scot should have known better.
Bent will rarely get an easier goal when it came, and while the boos at full-time were half-hearted, there really is little positive that can be said of Moyes’s reign right now.
Scorers: Manchester United - Van Persie (78), Carrick (80); Fulham - Sidwell (19), Bent (90)