Manchester City don’t really need any help at present. Nonetheless, no one is better at exploiting the breaks that come their way.
Taking on the treble winners at The Etihad is not without its challenges at the best of times. And Fulham are not experiencing the best of times.
They were already without their best player, Joao Palhinha, who had spent Friday night in Munich, posing in Bayern kit before his dream move fell through. He obviously wasn’t available and getting his head right for the long months before January will now require a master motivator.
As such, the task was already unenviable even before captain Tom Cairney, key to Fulham’s game plan, limped off after 16 minutes.
Then they conceded after 31 minutes, despite having neutered City and new signing Jeremy Doku. Mateo Kovacic’s through ball, Erling Haaland’s run and assist – though it looked suspiciously like a shot gone wrong – for Julian Alvarez was enough for them to establish their customary foothold in the game.
Erling Haaland starred for Manchester City with his first hat-trick of the season to take his tally to six already in the league
Julian Alvarez had scored in his third successive home game to open the occasion with 31 minutes on the clock at the Etihad
Haaland scored a second half hat-trick in the week that saw him crowned UEFA’s Player of the Season for his exploits last term
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Yet even then Fulham refused to fold, equalising within a minute. Raul Jimenez touched Andreas Pereira’s corner onto Bobby De Cordova-Reid, whose shot was saved by Ederson but spun into the waiting path of Tim Ream at the far post, who, three yards out, duly touched it in for 1-1.
But as flies to wanton boys are mid table teams to Manchester City: they kill them for their sport. And if the refereeing gods are also like minded, really there is no hope.
That’s how Marco Silva and Fulham will feel about the decisive moment of this game. Having pretty much survived the first half not just in tact but having given a disciplined tactical performance that caused City not inconsiderable discomfort, they experienced the rough end of the rule book.
We were in the last and fifth minute of injury time in the first half when Phil Foden swung in a corner and Nathan Ake met it firmly, placing it bottom corner for 2-1. Yet Manuel Akanji was stood two yards offside directly in front of ‘keeper Bernd Leno.
He feinted – to get out of the way, perhaps? – but also stuck out a leg – just after the ball had passed him, possibly? – but he was a giant clunking presence directly in the sight line of the ‘keeper.
It’s hard for those of a certain generation not to recall Bill Shankly’s take. ‘If a player isn’t interfering with play, what the bloody hell is he doing on the pitch?’ It seems manifestly unfair that Leno had to wait to see whether Akanji, clearly offside, makes his move before committing. In general, the rules should favour attacking sides. Yet this defied common sense.
Certainly the Fulham players and Silva felt so. Referee Michael Oliver consulted with his assistant but awarded the goal and wasn’t invited to view the incident as VAR Tony Harrington didn’t see an obvious error.
But most of the rest of the Etihad did when the helpful video screen operator replayed the goal, and Fulham went beserk, beseeching Oliver to take a view, which, of course, by now he couldn’t.
The Norwegian goal machine atoned for his error from 12 yards last time out against Sheffield United by sending Bernd Leno the wrong way
Marco Silva was left seething after Nathan Ake’s goal put City ahead before half-time – with a lengthy VAR check going City’s way
Despite swiftly equalising through defender Tim Ream, it was a chastening day at the office for the west London outfit
Adama Traore came off the bench for a late cameo, replacing Harry Wilson in attack for the final 10 minutes of the encounter
With City in a commanding position, Juanma Lillo was able to hand several youngsters some minutes, including Oscar Bobb
MAN CITY (4-2-3-1): Ederson; Walker, Dias, Akanji, Ake; Rodri (Silva 76′), Kovacic (Phillips 84′); Doku (Gómez 76′), Álvarez (Lewis 90′), Foden (Bobb 90′); Haaland
Subs: Ortega, Gvardiol, Nunes, Carson
Goals: Alvarez 31′, Ake 45+5′, Haaland 58, 70′ (P), 90+5′
Booked: Rodri, Silva
Manager: Juanma Lillo
FULHAM (4-3-3): Leno; Tete (Castagne 73′), Diop, Ream, Robinson; Pereira, Reed, Cairney (Harris 16′); Wilson (Traoré 81′), Jiménez (Carvalho 81′), De Cordova-Reid (Willian 73′)
Subs: Rodák, Bassey, Vinícius, Francois
Goal: Ream 33′
Booked: Diop, Robinson, Pereira, De Cordova-Reid
Manager: Marco Silva
Referee: Michael Oliver
At one point it looked as though the game wouldn’t resume, so animated were Fulham. When it did, Fulham assistant Luis Boa Morte rolled a second ball on the pitch twice, to delay it further, presumably hoping some kind of reprieve could be found.
Those are the breaks that make your life near impossible if you’re Fulham. After which, the second half was entirely predictable. On 58 minutes, Rodri played a through ball which Alvarez touched on and which deflected off Ream into Erling’s Haaland path and the conclusion was inevitable, Leno stretching vainly to keep the strike out.
The fourth will have only added to Fulham’s sense of grievance, coming by way of a Haaland penalty. Alvarez was doing his sprinting and darting thing that so confuses defenders and Issa Diop, the wrong side of him, panicked and pushed. The penalty was awarded, taken and scored by Haaland, who also doesn’t need extra help.
Poor Fulham. Just when it looked like they might get way with something respectable, Sergio Gomez used the final seconds of injury time to dash down the left, turn his defender inside out, before pulling back for Haaland to score his seventh City hat-trick just over a year after he arrived. 5-1 the records will say but that only tells a fraction of the story.
Fulham had put in a decent tactical performance in the first half that was causing City some discomfort, Ream netting the fruit of their labours