Brilliant Aguero steps up to help City stride forward
Manchester City 3 Fulham 0
Manchester's canals had started to freeze over long before this game kicked off, but at its finish there was a trickle of clear blue water between City and United. At the turn of the year, the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, had predicted that if his side were still top of the Premier League when the Touré brothers returned from the African Cup of Nations, his side would win the championship. They are still on course, if not by very much.
Asked if a dubious penalty and an own goal were a sign that luck was turning City's way, Mancini replied: "If you are not lucky you should stay at home." He will be at home this afternoon watching Manchester United face Chelsea, hoping for another win from men in blue. "Manchester United are used to pressure, they are used to having to win but we know that, if we want to win this League, we must focus only on our own games."
Despite the fact Fulham have a reputation for travelling the country handing out points like a footballing version of The Secret Millionaire, this was a far more difficult game than it looked. Firstly, there was the pressure. Tuesday night's defeat at Everton had reduced the points cushion over Manchester United to a threadbare patch of goal difference.
Fulham were also the last side to come away from Eastlands with a point, nearly a year ago. They had lost only one of their eight previous League visits to this corner of Manchester while Martin Jol had won all six of his matches against City while Tottenham's manager.
Then there were the conditions. From the curved stands of the Etihad Stadium the scene below resembled a football match seen through a snowshaker. The second half in particular saw defenders wrong-footed on a sodden, freezing surface. Edin Dzeko steered a ball on to his own post while Joe Hart attempted to dribble the ball around Clint Dempsey and almost came horribly to grief.
Briefly things became so bad that ground staff armed with shovels came on to the pitch to mark out the lines. Just to emphasise it is not just English footballers who have to deal with this, Internazionale had to paint the lines pink for a 4-4 draw with Palermo played out in a blizzard on Wednesday. This was rather less entertaining but, under the circumstances, 3-0 was an absurdly comfortable margin of victory.
The match demonstrated that, no matter how poor the conditions, very good footballers can still thrive. Sergio Aguero had a hand in all three goals and his low centre of gravity and his tendency to run with short, muscular strides were perfectly attuned tohis surroundings.
They were nowhere better demonstrated that for the third goal. At Craven Cottage, Fulham had recovered from a two-goal half-time deficit to force a draw that saw City drop points for the first time. Now, as he skipped past one challenge and turned into the area between two defenders, Aguero ended that possibility with a square ball that found Dzeko unmarked and virtually on the penalty spot. It was a gift almost impossible to spurn.
For every kind of reason the home side needed an early breakthrough as the snow drifted down. It arrived via the penalty spot as Chris Baird brought down Adam Johnson as he took the ball past Philippe Senderos. The decision seemed obvious but TV replays suggested that, as Johnson slipped, he pushed his leg towards Baird's. Cute was an adjective that sprang to mind. Mark Schwarzer guessed which corner Aguero would aim for but the Argentinian's shot was struck too hard and too high. It was his 18th goal of the season.
This was emphatically not an evening Baird would wish to remember and perhaps Jol would have been better employing the pacier John Arne Riise against Johnson from the start. A cross from Aleksandar Kolarov was touched on by Aguero and driven back across the face of the Fulham goal by Johnson. In trying to cut the ball out, Baird simply deflected it past his own goalkeeper. The Ulsterman stood hands on his hips, the snow dripping off his face, willing the night to swallow him.
Manchester City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Richards, Savic, Lescott, Kolarov; Johnson (Pizarro, 89), Barry, Nasri (Milner, 55), Silva; Aguero (De Jong, 79); Dzeko.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Senderos (J A Riise, 73), Hangeland, Baird; Duff, Etuhu (Ruiz, 68), Murphy, Davies; Dempsey, Dembélé (Gecov, 85).
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Aguero (Manchester City)
Match rating: 6/10
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