Manchester United 3 Fulham 0

All the press wanted to talk about after this game was the irresistible form of Wayne Rooney, who bagged another two clinical strikes to take his tally to 32 goals for the season and – ridiculously – within sight of Ronaldo’s mark of 42 goals in the 2007-08 season.

But, as good as England’s key man was in the Old Trafford sunshine on Sunday afternoon, the architect of United’s win – and increasingly the heartbeat of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season – was midfielder Darren Fletcher.

The Scot, who has taken over the pulling of the strings from the fading force that is Paul Scholes, is more perspiration than Scholes’s inspiration, but he and Michael Carrick bossed the midfield here, one of the main reasons for the reversal in fortunes from a chilly Saturday by the Thames in late December.

True, Bobby Zamora found Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand a more uncompromising central defensive unit than he had Carrick and Ritchie De Laet at Craven Cottage earlier in the season, but equally he did not enjoy the same service this time around.

In Fulham’s 3-0 win, the first goal came as Danny Murphy robbed a dithering Scholes and smashed the ball past United keeper Tomasz Kuszczak.

This time round, Murphy – who always gets a hostile reception from the Old Trafford crowd due to his time with Liverpool – was reduced to snarling at the referee, opponents and indeed his own players as the game slipped away from the visitors.

Manager Roy Hodgson conceded that Murphy was showing the effects of very little football recently.

“Players like Murphy, who was playing his first game for a long while, Dempsey hasn’t played for well over two months – the game starts to tell on them,” he said.

“We always knew that would be the case but we don’t have too many other alternatives at the moment.”

The sides’ contrasting exertions in Europe in midweek also had an effect.

United’s 4-0 romp over AC Milan came in front of their own fans and 24 hours earlier than Fulham’s 3-1 defeat away to Juventus, and Hodgson’s men tired in the face of a United onslaught in the second 45 minutes.

“I though our first-half performance was very solid. We defended well and passed the ball well in that period but, when Rooney got his goal so quickly in the second half, we were always going to be up against it,” the manager said.

“With the injury situation that we have at the moment and having played on Thursday, all the time it’s 0-0, you find that bit of energy but, when 1-0 comes, you find it harder to find the energy.

“I was just hopeful we could reproduce our first-half performance and maybe come away with a draw but I can’t say anything other than the best team won.”

Fulham may have found a second wind had Zamora not fluffed his lines when Erik Nevland’s flick somehow found the striker in space beyond United’s defence but he appeared to freeze, allowing Vidic to get back and put in a sensational covering tackle.

Rooney rarely shows such profligacy and, having settled nerves by turning in Nani’s cross 30 seconds into the second half, he settled the contest sevens minutes from time after good work from Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian’s display was indicative of United’s desire for payback for that December defeat.

Often a source of frustration for not matching his obvious talent with industry, on this occasion he was tackling back and offering plenty of movement, and he fully deserved his 88th-minute headed goal from Ji Sung Park’s centre.

There were some good signs for Hodgson. The returning Dempsey was Fulham’s main threat with some intelligent movement and tasty long-range shots and Chris Baird, sitting in front of defence, snuffed out a lot of United attacks before being overrun in the final 20 minutes.

But Hodgson will be concerned about Brede Hangeland, who came off worst from a first-half collision with Antonio Valencia and had to be substituted on the hour mark after suffering chest spasms.

Fulham: Schwarzer, Kelly, Hangeland (Greening 61), Baird, Shorey, Gera, Murphy (capt), Hughes, Dempsey (Nevland 71), Zamora, Davies (Duff h/t)

Subs: Okaka, Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Dikgacoi