Wayne Rooney began this game on the bench and ended it on a stretcher. Considerations of how much Manchester United had actually been improved by his arrival for the last 20 minutes – both he and Robin van Persie were largely anonymous during the time they shared on the pitch – were suspended when the England striker suffered a badly gashed knee in stoppage time after colliding with Hugo Rodallega's studs.
That means Sir Alex Ferguson will have to continue to work through his attacking options, but the point since the arrival of Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa – both of whom scored – is that United now have attacking options. Not too long ago they were being derided for over-reliance on Rooney. As Fulham discovered to their cost they can now dispense with him and still play like the old United, not only creating a succession of chances but accepting enough of them to make their superiority count.
Van Persie will probably score more goals and command more headlines, yet Kagawa is the sort of clever technician, both industrious and precise, that Ferguson has been seeking for a while. When he made way for Rooney he did so to applause.
For all that, United started in a trance. The danger with having Usain Bolt and his gold medals on the pitch before the kick-off is that your own efforts are bound to look pedestrian in comparison, and United were certainly slow out of the blocks in allowing Fulham to take the lead three minutes into the game. No one picked up Damien Duff as Bryan Ruiz rolled a low free-kick across the goalmouth, and though the Irishman almost overran the ball he still managed to dig out a shot that surprised David de Gea.
Bolt was still taking his seat as the goal went in – no one ever set a personal best in the South Stand – though at least he was in place to get a good view of Van Persie's first goal for his new club. A pretty impressive one it was too, the former Arsenal striker clipping a stunning left-foot half-volley past Mark Schwarzer from Patrice Evra's left wing cross to equalise after 10 minutes. That in turn was followed by Kagawa's first goal for United, a tap-in from two yards after Schwarzer had failed to hold Tom Cleverley's shot following a half-cleared Van Persie corner.
The Fulham players complained with some justification that Kagawa had scored from an offside position, having failed to move up as promptly as the defenders, though the linesman was in an ideal position following the corner and kept his flag down.
He raised it, quite correctly, two minutes later to deny Rafael da Silva a goal after Kagawa had struck a post, though United's busy right-back was not to be kept quiet for long.
Four minutes before the interval he climbed powerfully at the far post to beat Mladen Petric to the ball and force a header past Schwarzer from Ashley Young's inviting cross.
They were winners by five goals last week but it looked like it was Fulham's turn to take a hiding, though they were not about to take it lying down. Duff brought a save from De Gea just before the break, and when Petric attempted to drive home the rebound the goalkeeper reacted well again to divert the shot on to the bar and out to safety.
De Gea's confidence is a fragile thing, however, and, though Nemanja Vidic was credited with the own goal that brought Fulham back into the game just after the hour, fault clearly lay with the goalkeeper for coming for the ball and failing to claim it, punch it or deal in any way with it. At best it was a mix-up between the two players, yet with only Petric to worry about between them the goalkeeper should never have let Matthew Briggs's cross even reach his fellow defender.
While Rooney and Danny Welbeck were enthusiastically received by the home crowd their arrival coincided with a creative lull, possibly a result of Kagawa's departure, until Rafael brought the game to life again with a rasping drive that Schwarzer had to stretch to tip over.
Remarkably the game was quite finely poised at this point and Fulham realised a draw was now possible and gave the United defence one or two scares, notably at the death when De Gea punched Ruiz's header off the line. In the end United had to rely on their first-half efforts to see them through, which was a slight worry before Rooney became a major one.
"The intensity we showed in the first half was terrific," Ferguson said. "But once again we saw the two sides of Manchester United.
"In the first half we were on cruise control, we should have been four or five goals up and out of sight, but then we concede a stupid goal with a terrible mistake and suddenly we are hanging on. I was quite pleased with some of the football we produced, though, and Robin van Persie's goal was fantastic. Considering it was his first full game for the club he is bound to improve as he develops a better understanding with the other players."