Paul Pogba pummels Manchester United to pinnacle after Fulham fright

Barney Ronay at Craven Cottage
·4-min read

On a sodden, freezing Wednesday night in west London Manchester United came from behind to claim a fiercely fought 2-1 win against an impressive, resilient Fulham team.

The result leaves United top of the Premier League table, and extends to 17 matches their unbeaten away run, equalling the all-time club record. Best of all it arrived thanks to a moment of the highest quality from Paul Pogba, who was a quietly majestic presence in midfield.

Related: 'He can do everything': Solskjær praises Pogba after Manchester United win

This always looked a stiffer test for the visitors than the table might suggest. With a mist of dense January rain barreling in over the skeleton of the new stand, United were forced to dig deep into their own reserves against well-organised opponents.

“We needed the win and got it the hard way,” Pogba said afterwards, although there was nothing but sweetness in his winning goal just after the hour mark, a shot conjured off the cuff, from a moment of space on the right that drew a bark of startled glee from the United bench.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær had sent out a team that looked ready to play, with almost a full squad to choose from, an injury-free run that has formed part of this team’s mid-season surge. Solskjær spoke a lot about the need for extreme physical conditioning in his first season. All of these United regulars look fiercely, combatively fit.

Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood started in attack, and Pogba dropped into deep midfield, a progressive move in the absence of the gristlier Scott McTominay. Fulham kicked off with the freezing wind at their backs. They looked hungry from the off. Ademola Lookman had an early skimmed shot from 25 yards, and then stunned the empty stands with the opening goal on five minutes.

It took a single long pass from the impressive André-Frank Zambo Anguissa to cut United open. Lookman finished brilliantly, haring off all alone into the right side of the area before spanking a low hard shot into the far corner. Solskjær will wonder at the time and space to play the pass. But his team pressed back immediately, Pogba moving the ball nicely though the midfield.

First Bruno Fernandes clanked a shot against the foot of the post from outside the box. Moments later he crossed from the left, the ball was palmed out by Alphonse Areola and Cavani, lurking in just the right spot, finished neatly. Cavani celebrated with a shout. This was his first post-ban goal.

Pogba ran the game in patches in that first half. Before kick-off United’s star midfielder had wandered around his teammates offering encouragement. Here he passed wonkily at first, but showed such calm and craft on the ball his air of command seemed to spread through the red shirts.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka made good ground several times down the right, crossing for Anthony Martial to head just over with half an hour gone. By now the game had settled into the predictable press of red possession. But Fulham’s midfield pivot proved an aggressive, hard-pressing obstacle, with Lookman always busy on the break.

Related: Aston Villa rue luck as Gundogan and Silva help Man City to sixth straight win

Fulham were bright at the start of the second half too, Harrison Reed shooting powerfully over the bar after more good work from Lookman. United looked a cautious team at times even as they hogged the ball, with Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly stationed 20 metres behind the red line in front of them and rarely stepping up to allow the midfield to push on.

Loftus-Cheek showed some fine touches on the right, teeing up Lookman for a shot that David de Gea saved comfortably. Pogba produced one beautiful whipped deep cross. And with 64 minutes gone the game seemed to be meandering at 1-1, with Fulham still showing real discipline in midfield.

At which point, enter Pogba, who pulled the ball down out of the sky on the right flank, wandered inside, saw the space in front of him and walloped a wonderful curling shot inside the far post. The ball made a thrilling fizz as it left Pogba’s boot, and a clang as it bulged the net. At the midpoint this season could, frankly, go either way for any of these teams at the top. But this was a piece of champion skill.

Fulham pressed hard and had a chance to equalise soon after, Loftus-Cheek seeing his low shot well saved by De Gea. Another fine driving run opened up a chance that he blazed miles over the bar.

At the death United were grateful for a fine saving challenge from Wan-Bissaka. This was a victory for persistence on a miserable night, and for those deeper gears provided by an increasingly impressive star midfielder.