Manchester City took a huge step to securing their top flight status with a massive win over fellow strugglers Fulham at Craven Cottage. Joey Barton, DaMarcus Beasley and Darius Vassell scored the goals that lifted Stuart Pearce’s side to forty points and simultaneously left Chris Coleman’s side precariously placed just four points ahead of Sheffield United, who have a game in hand.

City’s third away win in succession was built on a clever counter-attacking strategy that soaked up periods of Fulham pressure and clinically punished some shoddy defending. Barton fired the visitors ahead after Fulham had dominated the early exchanges before Beasley concluded a flowing move to double their lead nine minutes before the break. A dreadful mistake from Liam Rosenior allowed Darius Vassell clean through on goal to settle matters – rendering Carlos Bocanegra’s header a mere consolation, which counted for little as Coleman surveyed the wreckage of this damaging defeat afterwards.

The hosts had begun brightly with Simon Davies shooting wide from distance and Alexei Smertin drawing a great save from Andreas Isaksson. Pearce’s side hadn’t shown much of an attacking threat before Barton fired home from the edge of the box after Michael Brown had failed to clear Emile Mpenza’s cross. Fulham were caught again by a rapid break as Michael Ball broke up a home attack and neat interplay between Barton and Michael Johnson put Beasley in the clear to roll home a second.

Brian McBride might have offered Fulham a lifeline when he headed Davies’ deep free-kick past the post, but the home side were also indebted to Antti Niemi for blocking Nedum Onuoha’s firm header. Pearce’s side seemed much more comfortable in the second half and stretched their lead after Fulham had a strong shout for a penalty against Onuoha turned down. The away side went straight up the other end and Rosenior’s poor clearance fell perfectly for Vassell, who picked his spot inside the far post.

Bocanegra’s 76th minute header prompted a furious attacking flurry from Fulham, but it couldn’t paper over the alarming cracks in their display. With an abysmal away record, home points are vital for the Cottagers and Coleman’s charges are throwing too many of them away.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi, Volz, Rosenior, Christanval, Bocanegra;, Smertin (Radzinski 55), Brown, Davies, Routledge (Dempsey 73); McBride, Helguson (Montella 58). Subs (not used): Lastuvka, Knight.

BOOKED: Bocanegra.

GOAL: Bocanegra (76).

MANCHESTER CITY (4-5-1): Isaksson, Onuoha, Distin, Dunne, Ball, Jihai, Johnson, Barton, Beasley (Sinclair 81), Vassell (Samaras 85), Mpenza. Subs (not used): Weaver, Dabo, Trabelsi.

BOOKED: Beasley, Vassell, Barton.

GOALS: Barton 21, Beasley 36, Vassell 59.

REFEREE: Steve Bennett (Kent).