Fulham and Manchester City stood against each other at Craven Cottage on Sunday as they opened the last stage of the Premier League season following the latest international break.
Fulham’s predicament at the moment can hardly be a worse one. They are firmly set in the relegation zone, with their chances of survival belonging more to fantasy than the real world. They need every point possible to even hope to do the unthinkable.
The defending champions are in a similar position in terms of the need for points, but for reasons that could not be more different. They are deadlocked with Liverpool in a two-horse title race, and with the Merseysiders entering the weekend on top, they simply had to win.
Fulham caretaker boss Scott Parker couldn’t count on striker Aleksandar Mitrović due to injury and that was a big blow. Defender Alfie Mawson is nearing comeback after a long absence but this game came too soon. Forward Andre Schurrle was in a similar situation but he made the bench.
Sergio Rico was in goal. Maxime Le Marchand, Calum Chambers and Timothy Fosu-Mensah formed a back three. Andre Zambo Anguissa,Floyd Ayite and captain Tom Cairney played in the heart of midfield, flanked by Joe Bryan on the left and Cyrus Christie on the right as the wing-backs. Ryan Sessegnon supported Ryan Babel up front.
Pep Guardiola in the away dugout was finally able to call upon Fernandinho and John Stones, but they were both named on the bench for this one. Kevin De Bruyne meanwhile, walked right into the team.
Ederson Moraes stood between the posts, with Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi right in front of him. Kyle Walker (right) and Oleg Zinchenko (left) covered the flanks at the back. Ilkay Gundogan anchored a midfield also containing De Bruyne and David Silva. Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling flanked Sergio Aguero in attack.
The First Half
It was no surprise to see Manchester City try and stamp their authority over the game straight away. Fulham, meanwhile, seemed decently organized as a unit as they fought back not to see their home run over.
However, it took only five minutes for their resistence to get beaten down, and it was of their own doing, as was the case too often this season. They gave away possession in their own half twice in quick succession, and while Fosu-Mensah blocked Aguero’s shot after Rico’s mistake, the fullback then himself gave the ball straight to De Bruyne. The Belgian involved Aguero again who left it Bernardo on the edge of the box, from where the Portuguese found the bottom corner with a precise trickling shot.
The champions continued their offensive straight away, not giving the home side one second to breathe. The ball just wouldn’t go over the halfway line and the visitors kept putting it in and around the box, with Rico having to save shots from Gundogan, Sterling and De Bruyne.
Seventeen minutes were gone when the Cottagers finally managed to compose themselves and move forward, and after a nice spell of possession they won a free-kick wide on the left. Bryan whipped it in towards the six-yard line but Babel failed to direct his header goalwards.
The wasted opportunity did not put them off. They kept their heads and continued playing to the best of their ability, and they occasionally managed to push City far back. Guardiola’s team still had its moments when they caused danger, but they were getting fewer.
But it took just one moment of madness at the back from Fulham and it cost them. Minute 26 was running when Bryan acted irresponsibly deep in his own half and Bernardo robbed him of the ball. Bernardo gave it to Aguero who charged into the box and doubled his team’s lead with a great finish from a tight angle.
Three minutes later, Fosu-Mensah produced a tackle from behind to take the ball from Sterling inside the box and the England winger went down looking for a penalty, but referee Kevin Friend was well-positioned and judged the tackle to have been clean.
Fulham had their first proper opportunity to get something done at the other end soon after as Chambers released the run of Sessegnon down the right flank. The winger tried to square it sharply towards the onrushing Babel, but Ederson dove and intercepted the cross with a strong hand.
However, City were now growing comfortable in the game. They had the lead, and they had the tools and patience to keep hold of the game and continue probing. Gundogan came very close from the edge of the box in the 44th minute, blasting a shot just wide.
Fulham suddenly hit back through Sessegnon on the right again and he pulled it back for the incoming Bryan who whipped it across towards the far post, but neither Babel nor Christie managed to get on the end of it.
The Second Half
Not allowing for any surprises, City got on the front foot again quickly. They circled the box and attacked for almost 10 minutes before Sessegnon took the ball far up the pitch for Fulham and enabled his team to try and fight back. The young winger was the only player in a white shirt that looked capable of causing the title defenders some trouble, but he too often lacked support.
Aguero was the man who gave Guardiola his first problem of the game as he started limping at that moment, and he had to be replaced after 57 minutes. Gabriel Jesus came on.
Right on the hour-mark, Cairney repeated the mistakes of his team in the first half and cheaply gave the ball away in his own half, and Sterling’s fine shot from the edge of the box forced a good save from Rico. Three minutes later, De Bruyne whipped in a good cross from wide right and almost found Otamendi unmarked on the edge of six yards, but Rico got out in time and took it off the City centre-back’s forehead.
With 20 minutes to go, Parker added to his attacking numbers by withdrawing Cairney and sending Schurrle on.
The composition of the game didn’t change much as time went on, but its pace was gradually waning. City were still mostly in control, but their urgency understandably vanished. Fulham only occasionally managed to get forward and couldn’t work out anything remotely promising even when they did. In the 75th minute, De Bruyne made way for Fernandinho for City.
The visitors had a great sudden chance in the 80th minute as Sterling sent Walker through on the underlap, and the fullback smashed one against the near post from around 10 yards. The moment looked for a minute or so as it could pour some life into the proceedings and inspire City to look for a third goal, but they quickly took their foot off the pedal again. Jesus and Gundogan kept combining through the middle and trying to break through, but the rest of their team didn’t seem very interested.
Sessegnon could have made things more interesting at the other end after some in-box head-tennis presented him with the ball on the edge of six yards, but he failed to hit the target under pressure from an opponent.
City got very lucky not to see their lead suddenly halved three minutes from time. Sterling gave away a cheap free-kick wide on the left and was fortunate to avoid a card. Shurrle took aim and it got deflected twice before Ederson somehow managed to keep hold of it.
After a very tame four-minute injury time, it was all over.
It isn’t very likely that Fulham were expecting to earn any points against Manchester City late in the season, and the result will come as no surprise to them; just like the rest of the world. Their relegation still isn’t a mathematical certainty, but it could be by next week if they lose to Watford on Tuesday and other results go against them. Realistically speaking, they have no chance of staying in the league.
It wasn’t exactly the scintillating type of performance which usually sees Manchester City beat teams lowly teams (with all due respect to Fulham) by five goals or more, but it was enough to get the job done, and they had it done early.
They have returned to the throne at least for 24 hours, and the pressure is now on Liverpool again to produce enough quality to beat Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow (Sunday) at Anfield.
FULHAM: Rico 7, Le Marchand 7, Chambers 7.5, Fosu-Mensah 6.5, Christie 7, Bryan 6.5, Anguissa 7, Cairney 5.5 (70′ Schurrle 6), Ayite 6.5(65′ Kebano 6), Sessegnon 7.5, Babel 7 (88′ McDonald N/A).
MANCHESTER CITY: Ederson 7.5, Laporte 8, Otamendi 8, Walker 8, Zinchenko 8, Gundogan 8.5, De Bruyne 7 (75′ Fernandinho 6.5), D. Silva 7, B. Silva 7.5, Sterling 7.5 (88′ Mahrez N/A), Aguero 8 (57′ Jesus 6.5).
GOALS: B. Silva 5′, Aguero 26′.
YELLOW CARDS: Christie 67′, Le Marchand 80′.
REFEREE: Kevin Friend.
DATE & VENUE: March 30, 2019, Craven Cottage, London.
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