A point was ultimately enough for Manchester United to seal second place and their fans returned to Old Trafford: two pleasing headlines for those of a red persuasion on a warm May evening that had 10,000 of the faithful witnessing Edinson Cavani in the flesh for the first time as those discontented with the Glazers’ ownership kept protests low-key.
“The buzz, energy, atmosphere was magic really,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “You felt it in the warm-up – and that’s been missing – maybe that was part of the reason why we played the way we did: too much to entertain.”
Cavani was signed a month into a season that in this last week can finally invite home supporters of all Premier League clubs back to their adored arenas. The striker was United’s star turn, conjuring an opener that had a wonderful, playground feel to it as he lobbed Fulham’s goalkeeper, Alphonse Areola, from 40 yards out. He was spearheading a team that, after consecutive losses to Leicester and Liverpool, showed Solskjær in ruthless mode, dropping Dean Henderson for David de Gea.
When the No 1’s name was read out, a rousing cheer went up – as it did when those of his teammates followed, though this was nothing compared to the explosion of sound that met Bruno Fernandes on leading the side into a stadium featuring a sea of fans displaying “Go Glazers Out” placards in the green and gold colours of Newton Heath, the team from which United descended.
Theirs was a controlled start in which an Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross that Paul Pogba headed over was a precursor to Cavani’s barnstorming finish. This came straight from the United playbook of slick moves. De Gea kicked towards Fernandes, Cavani peeled away from the centre circle, Areola out of his goal, then arrowed over a delightful finish that the goalkeeper could only palm in. Cue crowd delirium and a celebration by Cavani with a mob of teammates by the Stretford End. VAR took a look at the goal, but the strike stood, thankfully, and here was precisely what United and the support had waited 14 months for: a moment of unadulterated joy that could be shared.
Solskjær was also enthused. “The way he took the chance was just amazing,” he said. “Tonight we couldn’t get the three points we desperately wanted, as we want to go into next week full of confidence [for the Europa League final]. This might be a wake-up call. Everybody should look at how Cavani plays the game of football.”
After Luke Shaw’s 40-yard surge swept him through and he blasted over, Lee Mason blew for half-time, and applause followed. There was a swagger about United that is not always present and which is reminiscent of those Sir Alex Ferguson sides that swept all before them.
It continued after the interval, as the ball was tapped about nonchalantly, Fred fashioned flicks, Cavani tried a chipped pass, and Fernandes let fly a free-kick that skimmed Areola’s right post. Chants of “Glazers Out” were still heard but a festival feel was the dominant mood as Mason Greenwood’s pivot-and-shot went close to making it 2-0.
With United camped deep in Fulham’s territory, only complacency might trouble them – and so it proved. Suddenly Bobby Decordova-Reid was breaking along the right and crossing, with loose defending from the home team allowing Joe Bryan to head the equaliser. Old Trafford fell silent at what was the 28th goal conceded here –only three teams have conceded more at home in the Premier League – and as this was the last home match, the fans’ public shows of disgruntlement at the Glazers may now be paused until next season.
Taking the microphone, Solskjær addressed the fans from the pitch. “It is great to have you back in, and supporting the team,” he said. Pogba and the substitute, Amad Diallo, were seen parading a Palestine flag. Solskjær was note-perfect when asked about this. “We need to respect those with different views,” he said. And while the Norwegian refused to comment on whether Tottenham’s Harry Kane might be of interest to United in the summer market, he did not rule out a move for a striker. “Of course I can’t,” he said, who added that Scott McTominay and Fred are injury concerns after taking knocks.