John gives City a familiar feeling
Manchester City 1 - Fulham 1
Sunday 15 August 2004
Impressive, imposing, the pile of plaudits that have been laid before the City of Manchester Stadium would reach up to the roof, but the one thing you cannot describe it as is lucky for Manchester City. They won only five Premiership matches at their spanking new home last season and they began the new one yesterday by again failing to take maximum points.
It was a familiar tale for those with Sky Blue affiliations who have suffered at their Eastlands home not-so-sweet home, and a familiar failing that cost them yesterday. They were the better team for much of the game but did not make the most of their superiority, and they paid for their one defensive mistake. All very predictable, and the only surprise was that it was not the former Manchester United striker Andy Cole who ruined their day.
Instead it was Collins John, the 18-year-old Liberian striker, who profited from their hopeless defending in the 56th minute to wipe out Robbie Fowler's first- half opener. Plus ça change for City, plus a point for Fulham, who will play better this season and get a poorer reward.
"The thing that was missing was someone to put the ball in the back of the net," Kevin Keegan said with a familiar complaint. "We didn't get the second goal that you need to finish teams off. On a hot day like this, it would have been a killer for them."
"I love racing and it was a bit like watching one of your horses finish down the field when you know it is capable of doing much better," Keegan had written in the match programme.
His consolation is that first-day results are notoriously unreliable portents but the memory might not be a happy one. Last year, City gained arguably their best result of the season but as false dawns go, it was in the John Ford class because a 3-0 win at Charlton Athletic hardly prepared their supporters for the nine months of frustration that culminated in their only just avoiding relegation. He will hope the opposite works this time, particularly as he has persuaded Shaun Wright-Phillips to sign a new four-year deal.
"He was a very good player when I came to this club three years ago," Keegan said of his 22-year-old midfielder, "and now he's a great one. I put my name on him not only to play for England but to hold down a regular place and be a real star for his country. He has everything."
For 10 minutes the game also had everything as the players got their opening-day excitement out of their systems. No goal was immediately forthcoming, however, and the game appeared to be heading for an afternoon snooze until City woke everyone up after 27 minutes.
Danny Mills, their new signing from Leeds, took a throw-in on the right, Antoine Sibierski headed on and Fowler, who had barely done a thing right hitherto, shot cleverly over his shoulder into the top corner.
Four minutes later, Fulham's defence was in tatters again when Nicolas Anelka sped down the right and passed back to Wright-Phillips. His shot was parried by Edwin van der Saar and City were denied a second bite of the cherry only because the visitors woke up to crowd Fowler out.
Anelka also had a half-chance when he was gloriously set up by Fowler's neat control and backheel just before half-time but he blazed wide from the edge of the area, and the French striker was also heavily involved in pulling Fulham this way and that as Sibierski crossed for Wright-Phillips after 50 minutes. At 5ft 5in he is not used to winning the ball in the air and his effort sailed wide.
Nevertheless, City seemed to be in complete control and it was a bolt from the blue when Fulham equalised after 55 minutes. Quite how they managed it will probably be a question that Keegan will be asking in training tomorrow because the threat appeared to be negligible when Claus Jensen aimed a hopeful long cross from the right. Mills allowed John to turn, however, and a shot that carried little conviction also found David James flat-footed on his line and the ball bounced into the net.
City looked dumbfounded but they could have gone ahead again 12 minutes later when Sibierski caught the visiting defence ball-watching at Reyna's free-kick. He stole in at the back and his header would have gone in by the post if Van der Saar had not made a good save with his legs.
Jensen was rescued by Van der Saar when he almost turned Sibierski's shot into his own net after 76 minutes, but it was Fulham who finished the stronger and they almost stole a win with 10 minutes to go.
Cole split the home defence with a delightful flick and as Jensen burst through, it seemed certain that he was going to score. Instead James dived to his right to make an excellent save.
It was a rare good moment in another difficult day at the stadium of frustration.
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