The away form that is the only thing standing between Manchester City and regaining the Premier League title has taken a turn for the better. After winning at Bayern Munich and Leicester City in the space of eight days they added a third success in different competitions yesterday to move into second place in the table.
City being City, the victory was not entirely straightforward, a dogged if limited Fulham being allowed to recover from 2-0 down at half-time to equalise. Manchester memories of losing after leading at Aston Villa and Cardiff must have resurfaced when Vincent Kompany’s second goal of the match – this time into his own net – brought the home side level but the fear lasted only 10 minutes before control was re-established with late efforts by Jesus Navas and James Milner.
Depth of squad is critical for a club in pursuit of four trophies. Those two players were on the pitch as substitutes and City had been able to cover comfortably for the absence of their leading scorer Sergio Aguero. Coping without Pablo Zabaleta at right-back (Micah Richards is also injured) is another matter, Gaël Clichy having to deputise there on his ‘wrong’ side but if they continue scoring at this sort of rate – reaching 50 league goals before Christmas – what happens at the other end will hardly matter.
Clean sheets may be rare and Joe Hart was unable to keep one on his return after eight weeks yesterday, but he could not be blamed for either of the two goals that went past him. Serenaded as “England’s No1” - which no one can deny - by the thousands of City followers at the Putney End, he made two excellent saves in the first half. Left unprotected when the unmarked Kieran Richardson knocked in a cross for Fulham’s first, he could hardly have expected his skipper, Kompany, off balance, to miscue so badly.
“It was a hard victory,” said City’s manager Manuel Pellegrini. “Fulham play an intensive game and we had to work hard to win. The own goal was bad luck and the reaction, going forward again, was very important. We have a really strong squad with quality players and we can cope with having injuries.”
On Hart’s return, he added: “I spoke with him and he understood he was not in a good moment [when dropped]. But I thought he deserved another opportunity.”
It was a foul day for goalkeepers more than anyone in the imported Mancunian-style weather and Hart was tested early on in the wind and rain as Fulham started with more vim than might have been expected of a team in the bottom two.
Without Dimitar Berbatov, who had strained a groin in training, they used Adel Taarabt as the main attacker in a role he performed well, showing greater awareness of team-mates than has sometimes been the case and threatening with his shooting. Twice he forced Hart to fine low, one-handed saves, the first time after a cross by Richardson and the second following a counter-attack of three against three.
In between times, however, the outstanding David Silva, roaming behind the front two of Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko, struck the bar and then City scored. They were awarded a debatable free-kick against Steve Sidwell and Aleksandar Kolarov, after looking favourite to shoot, made way for Yaya Touré to take it from the other side, his pefectly placed shot almost kissing the post on its way in.
Rene Meulensteen, whose fourth game this was, sounded satisfied with his side’s efforts overall but had to be displeased with the second goal they conceded at a crucial time just before the interval.
John Arne Riise fouled Samir Nasri out on the right and, from Silva’s flighted free-kick, the centre-half Martin Demichelis slipped round the back of the defence unmarked for a header that Maarten Stekelenburg pushed out, only for Kompany to place it back past him.
From a daunting position, Fulham recovered with spirit, the crowd remaining commendably behind them. Early in the second half Silva was for once dispossessed, Taarabt breaking down the left and delaying his pass until Richardson was well placed to side-foot it past Hart. Navas, on for Dzeko, missed badly from close range, which looked costly when Fulham scored a comical equaliser. The build-up was impressive enough as Scott Parker played a fine ball inside the full-back for the overlapping Sascha Riether, whose cross Kompany somehow looped into his own net.
City, in turn, reacted positively against what is now statistically the worst defence in the league. In the 77th minute, Giorgos Karagounis was muscled off the ball and Silva fed Navas for a right-footed finish through the goalkeeper’s legs for City’s 50th goal of this remarkable campaign.
Shortly afterwards they had a 51st to end the argument after Negredo playing a wonderful pass with the outside of his foot for Milner, unmarked, to steer in.
Fulham (4-1-4-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Senderos (Amorebieta, 37), Hughes,Riise; Karagounis (Bent, 81); Dejagah (Kasami, 64), Sidwell, Parker, Richardson; Taarabt.
Manchester City (4-3-1-2): Hart; Clichy, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Nasri (Milner, 74), Fernandinho, Yaya Touré; Silva (Javi Garcia, 83); Negredo, Dzeko (Navas, 57).
Referee: Kevin Friend.
Man of the match: Silva (Manchester City)
Match rating: 8/10