Usually, a third round exit in the Carling Cup would be par for the course for Fulham. The howls of indignation from disappointed fans, though, were not as loud as after our tame to defeat to Wolves at the weekend. Roy Hodgson juggled his resources again – and having taken moneybags Manchester City to extra time – professed himself pleased with a ‘magnificent’ performance that was rather better than the horrible slaughter predicted by the pessimists in the build up.
Listening to Mark Hughes after the victory, hailing his side’s character and resilience to come from behind, I was struck by the scale of the achievements of our shadow side. So many times we’ve seen Fulham sides ripped aprt on the road, defences disorganised and goals reigning in all over the place. Usually, the League Cup is the competition where we feature quite highly in the newspaper reports – the victim of another shock exit, when in reality the weaker side that we put out proved less motivated than our lower league opponents.
Hodgson, with the difficult prospect of a visit from Arsenal to come at the weekend, predictably juggled his resources. There was another sighting of Fredrik Stoor, who did pretty well at right back in what proved a busy defence, and a start for Eddie Johnson up front. The American, another one who has has slipped down the pecking order since he arrived at the Cottage a couple of years ago, showed real presence of mind to create our surprise opener from Zoltan Gera.
Fulham had offered little as an attacking force in the first half, seeking instead to contain an almost full-strength City side, which they managed pretty well. Indeed, apart from Gareth Barry’s point-blank header that was straight at David Stockdale, it is difficult to imagine the young goalkeeper having to make too many saves. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some fairly frantic defending with plenty of last-ditch blocks from Chris Baird and Chris Smalling as the pair impressed once again at the heart of the Fulham defence.
The Fulham goal came out of nothing. Johnson, who scurried willingly all evening with Seol operating more as a second striker rather than as an orthodox strike partner for the American, cleverly rolled the ball to Gera in a central position about 25 yards from goal. The Hungarian, realising that there was little else on, went for goal on the half-volley. What a strike it was too – leaving Shay Given, arguably the best goalkeeper in the league, grasping at air as the ball flew into the top left-hand corner.
The goal was obviously going to galvanise City – and a healthy crowd who had turned out to support the superstars, aided by some smart ticket pricing from the suits at the City of Manchester Stadium. Fulham had actually started the second period pretty brightly, winning a couple of corners, before they were undone by a City set-piece. Stockdale came from a corner and didn’t get there, giving Barry the simplest of tasks to head the ball into a largely unguarded net. There was a fear that following the equaliser the floodgates might open, but Fulham stood firm.
They even created a chance to win the game as the clocked ticked towards extra-time. Given produced a brilliant stop to thwart Seol and we headed into thirty extra minutes. Fulham continued to defend with commitment and gusto, but were finally undone from another set-play with nine minutes left. Koulo Toure rose between Stephen Kelly and Baird to head his first goal for City high into the net. There was still time for Given to deny Bjorn Helge Riise, now partnered by Kagiso Dikgacoi in central midfield, but Fulham’s second string had given Hodgson plenty to ponder.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Given; Zabaleta, Bridge, Toure, Lescott; de Jong (Weiss 90), Ireland (Petrov 75), Barry; Wright-Phillips, Bellamy, Tevez. Subs (not used): Taylor, Garrido, Sylvinho, Vidal, Ball.
GOALS: Barry (52), Toure (111).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Stoor, Kelly, Smalling, Baird; Riise, Greening, Davies (Dikgacoi 71), Gera (Anderson 120); Seol; E. Johnson (Elm 90). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Watts, Smith, Saunders.
BOOKED: Dikgacoi, Kelly.
GOAL: Gera (34).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell.