Confident Manchester United moved into the Premier League’s top four with a dominant win over struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Anthony Martial was in sensational form, making the first for Paul Pogba and scoring a wonderful second as United secured their 10th victory in 11 games under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Pogba wrapped up the points in the second half when he stroked home from the penalty spot after Juan Mata was fouled in the area.
Despite fielding a much-changed defence, they were rarely troubled by a Fulham team who have now conceded 58 goals this season and remain firmly entrenched in the relegation zone.
United on the other hand have moved above Chelsea on 51 points with their recent stunning form pushing them into the hunt for an end-of-season Champions League spot.
Pogba’s brilliance defines United
Pogba’s resurgence under Solskjaer has been well documented and his performance at Craven Cottage epitomised the way he has played under the Norwegian.
Two more goals took his season’s tally to 13 – seven of them have been scored in nine Premier League games under Solskjaer – and he completely ran the game for Manchester United.
With just 13 minutes on the clock, he latched onto Martial’s through ball and from a tight angle smashed the ball high into the top corner of Sergio Rico’s net.
He continued to stroll around the pitch with the swagger and skill expected of a £89m World Cup winner, dovetailing neatly with Martial to strengthen the case that he is the best midfielder in the Premier League at the moment.
And after Mata was clumsily pulled down by Maxime Le Marchand on 64 minutes, Pogba picked up the ball and coolly slotted the penalty into the bottom right corner.
With the game won, Solskjaer withdrew his star man to protect him for big tests coming up, not least Paris St-Germain in the Champions League last 16 at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
Feeble Fulham continue to struggle
Claudio Ranieri’s side have now lost five of their last six games and a return to the Championship looks all the more likely after this display.
It could all have been very different if the Cottagers had scored in the opening minute. From a Manchester United attack, the Cottagers broke quickly and Andre Schurrle picked out Luciano Vietto at the back post. The Italian though could only carelessly screw his shot wide.
Schurrle himself could have scored moments later but he too was off target when well placed.
That was as good as it got for Fulham who showed no signs of repeating their incredible comeback from two goals down to beat Brighton in their previous home match.
Indeed, Mitrovic’s twisting header on 72 minutes was the only time they tested United keeper David de Gea in the second half.
Ryan Babel summed up their afternoon when he could only hit the post from a yard out, to the great joy of the United fans situated behind the goal.
On this evidence, Ranieri has a lot of work to do to salvage their season as they sit seven points from safety with just 12 games left.
Shouts of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ from his own fans when he withdrew Schurrle early in the second half will not help their cause.
Games against West Ham and Southampton will be vital before an intimidating March run of fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Solskjaer’s changes pay off
Solskjaer seemed to have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League match and made six changes to the side that won last time out at Leicester.
With Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez rested, replacements Martial and Romelu Lukaku improved their chances of featuring in that game with a performance full of threat.
Martial in particular was in dynamic form, tormenting Fulham’s stand-in right back Denis Odoi throughout and scoring a marvellous goal after a run from inside his own half.
Solskjaer also shuffled his defenders as Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, fresh from signing new long-term deals at Old Trafford, reprised their centre-back partnership.
And, despite a few shaky moments early on, they easily handled the feisty Mitrovic and cruised to a sixth consecutive away victory in all competitions for the first time since May 2009.
Solskjaer even had the luxury of withdrawing Pogba and Martial with 20 minutes left, two Frenchmen who will relish the challenge posed by runaway Ligue 1 leaders PSG.
Man of the match – Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
What they said
Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri: We created two great chances in the first 10 minutes but after we conceded we gave it to them and lost our composure. When you play against big champions you can make mistakes.
I tried to give my players more opportunities by playing with two strikers and Ryan Babel in behind. We didn’t create anything very dangerous and the penalty finished the match.
On Andre Schurrle’s substitution: I know the fans were not happy but I had two players with flu in the week, including Andre Schurrle. I can understand the fans always want their players to play but it’s not always possible.
We will work to try and win our next two games. We’re always positive.
Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: The first 10 minutes we made it hard for ourselves but the last 80 minutes pleased me. We managed the game well which you have to do away from home and we played some fantastic football.
The players have some fantastic qualities. I’ve supported United for many years and as a United fan you go into every game thinking you’re going to win it. We’re on a great run but I think the players are feeling the same.
We know how good Paul Pogba is and he scored a great goal.
We want to keep moving forward and hang onto this fourth place. When you win games, you’re always happy and I think the crowd will enjoy the trip home.
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba: We’ve played better but getting two quick goals in the first half changed the game. Ole helps every player play at their best. Ole is himself. He’s not acting and he’s given joy and confidence to everyone.
The team has a really good atmosphere. You can see on the pitch the effect.
There is a long way to go with big games coming up. We’ve got to focus on PSG and try and get points from the big teams.