Trying to sum up the wreckage of Manchester City’s performance in Hamburg, Stephen Ireland remarked that they had not been “brave enough”. Yesterday, his manager, Mark Hughes, took the courageous step of dropping Robinho, Britain’s most expensive footballer, a signing made by the club’s owners and the footballer whose arrival led City’s fans to believe that they might start escaping the vast shadow of Old Trafford.
This was the first time Robinho had not started a Premier League game. Although Hughes argued that he had to be “protected” for the second leg of their Uefa Cup quarter-final on Thursday, when they have to overturn a two-goal deficit, the experiment cannot be said to have succeeded. If the absence of Robinho and the injured Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips was supposed to allow the lesser members of this expensive squad to step forward, they collectively hid behind the sofa. Of Hughes’ starting line-up, Valeri Bojinov had never completed 90 minutes of Premier League football while Martin Petrov and Kelvin Etuhu have not done so since the opening day of the season.
Even though Fulham went a goal behind to a deflected Ireland shot in the first serious attack Manchester City had, their control was complete and those home fans who remained to the end mocked their players with |a grimly humorous chorus of “Hamburg are bricking it”.
There were reasons of form why Robinho ought not to have played. He has not scored since December and has sleepwalked through matches. Off the field, he seems a man apart, just as at Real Madrid. He still, however, remains a figure of enormous iconic potential. Every warm-up was cheered and when Hughes chose Ched Evans rather than Robinho as his first substitute, the stands were awash with cries of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.
There were 27 minutes remaining when he did come on and by then Fulham were in the lead, courtesy of Kelvin Etuhu’s brother, Dickson, a one-time product of Manchester City’s academy, sold by Kevin Keegan and who had previously managed one top-flight goal.
His second, like all Fulham’s goals yesterday, was beautifully executed, although it came from a cross that should have been cut out.
Robinho did manage one shot that Mark Schwarzer almost fumbled over the line but Evans looked the likelier scorer and it was in defence that Manchester City’s failings were repeatedly exposed. Richard Dunne’s Easter Sunday was a wretched experience. He launched himself into a tackle at Bobby Zamora that allowed the forward to thread a pass through to Clint Dempsey, whose second goal of the afternoon was as clinically put away as his first had been. With seven minutes remaining, it was the signal for a general emptying of Eastlands.
Fulham had to overturn a one-goal lead and the surprise was that it took them 22 minutes to do it – when Micah Richards tackled Zamora and saw the ball run to Dempsey whose finish was surgical. As the team was booed off, the Tannoys attempted to whip up some enthusiasm for a quarter-final which will be played out in front of City’s owners.
“Bring your flags, bring your support, bring your banners,” the announcer said. On this evidence, they ought to bring their boots.
Goals: Ireland (28) 1-0; Dempsey (50) 1-1; D Etuhu (58) 1-2; Dempsey (83) 1-3.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Given; Richards, Dunne, Onuoha, Garrido; Zabaleta, De Jong; K Etuhu (Sturridge, 63), Ireland, Petrov (Robinho, 63); Bojinov (Evans 55). Substitutes not used: Hart (gk), Elano, Fernandes, McGivern.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Murphy (Dacourt, 89), D Etuhu, Dempsey (Gera, 86); Zamora (Kamara, 86), Johnson. Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Nevland, Stoor, Baird.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Man of the match: Dempsey.
Before the Etuhus: Brotherly rivals - In the Premier League:
*Neville Gary (Manchester United) and Phil (Everton) have faced each other four times since younger sibling Phil left United in 2005.
*Allen Clive (West Ham) and Bradley (QPR), plus cousins Martin (West Ham) and Paul (Spurs, Southampton) played each other in the 1990s.
*Linighan Andy (Arsenal) came up against his younger brother David (Ipswich) in the mid-1990s.
*Ferdinand Rio (Manchester United) missed a reunion with Anton (West Ham, Sunderland) on Saturday, but has faced his kid brother five times.Reuse content