Manchester, England: Wayne Rooney sent Manchester United three points clear in the Premier League on Monday, scoring a first-half goal in a 1-0 victory over Fulham to earn the reigning champions their sixth straight league win.
The England striker ensured United capitalised on title rival Manchester City's 1-1 draw at Stoke on Saturday by stroking home a close-range winner high into the net in the 42nd minute at Old Trafford, his 21st league goal of the season.
With only eight games left in the campaign and what appears an easier run-in than City, Alex Ferguson's side is now the favourite to extend its record haul of English titles to 20 at the expense of one of its fiercest rivals.
"It's a good position to be in but it's not decisive," Ferguson said. "It's a good game for us tonight — that's what it will be like for us for the rest of the season."
From a position of total authority, United endured some nervous moments in the final 10 minutes and could have conceded a late penalty when Michael Carrick appeared to bundle over midfield counterpart Danny Murphy in the area.
"I think everyone in the stadium expected a penalty, to be honest," Fulham manager Martin Jol said. "But you have to be brave to give a penalty at Old Trafford."
United should have been well clear by then, with Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer producing wonderful saves to deny wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia at the start of the second half.
"For an hour, we played very well," Ferguson said. "The disappointing thing was that we never finished them off."
Rooney has found his scoring form just at the right time for United, his goal taking his tally in the last nine games in all competitions to 11.
He is now just five goals behind Arsenal striker Robin van Persie in the Premier League's goalscoring charts and the same amount away from equaling his record league haul in one season.
The goal was avoidable from Fulham's point of view, with left back John Arne Riise failing to clear a cross from the left by the recalled Young.
United defender Jonny Evans, who had come upfield for a corner, stabbed the ball back across goal for Rooney to stroke into the net from the edge of the six-yard box.
It was United's fifth 1-0 win of the campaign and extended its unbeaten league run to 10 matches, nine of which have been wins in a typically strong finish to the season that has become the club's trademark under Ferguson.
"It's a great result for us but we are disappointed with the performance," said Evans, whose center-half partner Rio Ferdinand came off in the 74th minute with stiffness in his back.
Save for a couple of shots from distance by top scorer Clint Dempsey, 13th-place Fulham — which came into the game with the joint-worst away record in the league and with just one win at Old Trafford since 1959 — had been on the back foot up until Rooney's goal although United hadn't created any genuine chances.
The second half was even more one-sided, with Valencia drawing a point-blank save in the 47th from Schwarzer, who then also saved well from Young's curling shot.
With goal difference potentially a factor in the run-in, United poured forward in a bid to trim City's three-goal advantage, bringing on Mexico striker Javier Hernandez in the 63rd minute.
Ryan Giggs dragged an effort wide from the edge of the box, before Schwarzer produced a stunning double save to twice deny the lively Young.
Fulham had its moments toward the end of the match, Dempsey just failing to get a touch to Murphy's floated through-ball with only United goalkeeper David De Gea to beat.
With the home side becoming increasingly nervous and lax in possession, Murphy ghosted into the box and fell under pressure from the retreating Carrick. Referee Michael Oliver ignored Fulham's protests and United survived.
Updated Date: Mar 27, 2012 07:23 AM