Two goals from Steed Malbranque, provided by a spiky Luis Boa Morte proved decisive in a compelling match punctuated by fatal defensive errors. Indeed, it was the first time in seven months that Manchester City had conceded two goals and it provided desperately needed succour for Fulham.
If they manage to hang on to their two most effective performers they will succeed in climbing clear. Boa Morte has agreed a new deal, while Fulham manager, Chris Coleman, is keen for Malbranque, a City target, to do likewise. "We want to keep him, but if we are to lose him it would be for a hell of a lot of money," he said.
City's Stuart Pearce isn't the Frenchman's only admirer. Prime Minister Tony Blair, on BBC's Football Focus, picked out Malbranque as an "unsung hero". "He's got good taste," said Coleman. "Steed was excellent although I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't know who Tony Blair is." Pearce said he was happy to share with Blair a "good eye for a player" but he was distinctly displeased with the "softish goals" his team conceded in a raucous encounter. It ended with the remarkable sight of City goalkeeper David James losing possession outside the area - the Fulham area that is - and the home side breaking with four against one, only for Tomasz Radzinski to scuff his shot.
That was rivalled by the inept start made by City's Richard Dunne who clumsily failed to deal with a long punt and then watched helplessly as Boa Morte sped past him and crossed for Malbranque to side-foot in.
Dunne, having missed four matches through injury, may well be City's reigning player of the season but he needs to be at peak fitness to perform. "He looked a touch short," conceded Pearce, who recalled the Irishman after losing David Sommeil with a fractured cheekbone.
There was another Dunne hash, only for James to compound that mistake by presenting the ball to Radzinski who hooked it across the area. The errors spread and Sylvain Distin skied a clearance for Brian McBride to head to Radzinski, who again miscued.
City were in disarray. But then they were level. It followed a shard of genius from Stephen Ireland, who changed the angle with a first-time pass from the area's edge that released Lee Croft. The deftness stunned everyone except the 20-year-old winger who confidently drove right-footed across Tony Warner for his first Premiership goal.
City's reprieve was short-lived and again their defence was culpable while their young midfield was outmanoeuvred. Just before half-time Boa Morte cut through the centre to, once more, find Malbranque, who evaded James and calmly flicked in to secure what became the winning goal.
There was little from Cole. He, as did Vassell, headed over and then contrived to miss the ball completely from 15 yards.
Fulham came closer. James - on the verge of an England recall today - rallied with an astonishing double save, stopping a low shot by Collins John with his outstretched boot before being alert enough to recover and smother from the hapless Radzinski on his goal-line.Reuse content