Steed Malbranque served up a painful reminder of his enduring quality to Stuart Pearce as the French midfielder’s double fired Fulham to victory against Manchester City.
Pearce had made Malbranque one of his top transfer targets after succeeding Kevin Keegan this summer but Fulham rebuffed two transfer bids for one of their prized assets. The classy midfielder, who is expected to begin talks with the Whites over a new contract this week as they seek to ward off further interest from City, proved the difference between the two sides with a ruthless display of finishing that punished some abject away defending.
It took Malbranque just six minutes to make his mark. Richard Dunne failed to make a routine clearance allowing Luis Boa Morte to saunter down the left and Malbranque gleefully sidefooted home the Portuguese winger’s low cross to give Fulham the lead. Tomasz Radzinski nearly made it two three minutes later when he slid in to try and convert a Malbranque cross. Joey Barton recognised the importance of shutting down the mercurial Frenchman but his wild lunge on the touchline was out of control. It came as something of a surprise that Rob Styles pulled only a yellow card out of his pocket.
City, who had been distinctly second best, equalised very much against the run of play when Stephen Ireland sent Lee Croft clear of the Fulham defence and the midfielder chipped the stranded Tony Warner. Pearce was forced into a midfield reorganisation before the break when Kiki Musampa limped off injured and Fulham took advantage with Boa Morte threading a defence-splitting pass through for Malbranque, who skipped round David James to restore the home side’s lead.
Pearce’s men were far more competitive in the second half with Andy Cole twice going close to scoring on his return to Craven Cottage. He completely missed his kick on the edge of the box and then glanced an Iceland free-kick fractionally wide. At the other end, Radzinski rattled the near post with a fierce shot before James kept City in the contest with a magnificent double save to deny Collins John and Brian McBride.
Bradley Wright-Phillips had an equaliser ruled out for offside and Pearce sent David James up for a late free-kick only for the goalkeeper to lose possession just outside the Fulham box. The home side broke devastating but Malbranque unselfishly refused the chance to complete his hat-trick, instead picking out Radzinski who horribly fluffed his finish – allowing Sun Jihai to scramble the ball away to safety.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Warner; Volz, N. Jensen, Bocanegra, Goma; Diop, Malbranque, Radzinski, Boa Morte; McBride (Helguson 77), John. Subs (not used): Batista, Knight, Rosenior, Elrich.
BOOKED: Boa Morte.
GOALS: Malbranque (6, 44).
MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2): James; Mills (Jihai 68), Dunne, Distin, Jordan (B. Wright-Phillips 80); Ireland, Croft, Musampa (Sibierski 43), Barton; Cole, Vassell. Subs (not used): De Vlieger, Thatcher.
BOOKED: Barton, Croft, Jordan.
GOAL: Croft (20).
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire).