• Ferguson's team in no mood for repeat of last year's implosion
• Wayne Rooney goal turns Fulham's lights out a second time
This had felt like a test of Manchester United's credentials, though it ended up as a statement of their intent. The leaders were frustrated by committed defenders and struck the woodwork three times, were stretched by opponents who grew into a mesmerising contest, and were forced to demonstrate their own resilience yet still prevailed. "Sometimes you play against them and you think you have done well, created chances, but in the end they win 1-0," said the Fulham defender, Sascha Riether. "United are champions if they can win games like that."
They have the relentless look of Premier League winners elect at present. Since losing at Norwich City in mid-November United have dropped four points in 13 unbeaten matches. The most daunting away game still to come among their remaining fixtures is arguably at Arsenal, where they have won on three of their last four visits in all competitions, in late April and the onus will be on Manchester City to win at Old Trafford before then if they are to be caught. Losing the league so spectacularly last term has clearly left scars. They are in no mood for a repeat.
Saturday's success offered a reminder of why history should not repeat itself this time. This contest, briefly interrupted when the floodlights failed just before the interval, was desperately tight with Fulham, even devoid of Dimitar Berbatov, so much more impressive than the previous week when they had been humiliated by these opponents in the FA Cup.
United may have clipped the posts and bar three times to Fulham's one but it was Martin Jol's side who made much of the running after the interval and appeared to be hammering on the door of an eye-catching victory. And yet, amid the home side's pressure, the visitors' firepower made its mark with Wayne Rooney's beautifully guided finish around Aaron Hughes and beyond Mark Schwarzer after Philippe Senderos had misjudged an optimistic punt down the line.
The England striker was operating on the left flank by then as Javier Hernández's introduction had forced a rejig with Robin van Persie also central. "Javier stretched them a little bit and gave Wayne some room on that far side of the pitch," said Sir Alex Ferguson, United's manager. It was still a goal conjured from nothing, the type of concession to leave opponents who had briefly dared to believe suddenly reminded of their place in the larger scheme of things. Both Sir Alex and his match-winner drew comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo's 88th-minute winner in this fixture in February 2007, a goal that thrust United nine points clear of José Mourinho's Chelsea at the top. They ended up losing only one more game before the title was reclaimed with two matches to play. Victory in tight contests such as this injects conviction as well as momentum into title challenges.
It is the sheer strength in depth that suggests there will no repeat of last season's implosion over the run-in. Hernández was introduced midway through the second period, with Rooney retaining his bite out wide. Van Persie may not have scored himself but he was a constant menace to distract home defenders, with Ryan Giggs offering up some late class. Danny Welbeck, the England senior side's leading goalscorer in 2012, had six minutes at the end to stretch a weary rearguard on the break. "To see Welbeck coming on, one of the quickest players in the Premier League, just to hurt you … it was a little bit frightening," said Jol. "They not only have the best team but the best squad as well.
"Rooney causes you problems because he is playing behind your midfield in that hole and he's very clever. But Van Persie is the main man. He's the one who sets them up with the little flicks and combinations. He will be the top scorer in the Premier League again, as he was last year. Van Persie is like Zlatan [Ibrahimovic]. Wherever Zlatan goes, they will be champions, and Van Persie has that quality as well. If the rest are useless, he will not win you the title. But United are very good." Ibrahimovic won eight successive league titles with five different clubs and Van Persie has yet to claim one, though this may be his time.
The Dutchman, like Rooney, was just as effective at the other end to prevent Fulham making the impression their own display merited and it needed the striker to nod Senderos' header from the goal-line in stoppage time to preserve the win. Jol could draw encouragement from the sight of his players testing David de Gea and from Urby Emanuelson's cameo as a substitute, with others plucked late on in a frantic transfer window to be granted time to find their feet. "In the last two games there has been a change," said Riether. "We've been a team with a fighting spirit, wanting to beat West Ham and United, and if we go on like that, it can still be a great season." For United it can be glittering.
Man of the match Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)