This was all a little bit after the Lord Mayor’s show. Fulham, looking leggy from their European exploits on Thursday, never really recovered from giving away a couple of soft first-half goals and, despite a belated fightback, it was Manchester City who strolled to three points in the Sunday sunshine.
The irony of it all was that, in a lively opening, Fulham conceded just after they had looked certain to take the lead. Zoltan Gera guided an effort past Shay Given but any celebrations proved premature as Kolo Toure arrived from nowhere to clear the ball from underneath his own crossbar. The home fans were still getting their breath back when Craig Bellamy burst down the City right to conclude a quick counter-attack and saw his shot deflect off Aaron Hughes and onto the near post. Mark Schwarzer could only push the loose ball away and Roque Santa Cruz rolled in the opening goal from three yards out.
City, happy to play possession football with a midfield five until opportunities to move quickly upfield presented themselves, struck with precision with nine minutes to go in the first half. Bellamy, playing more as a winger than a centre forward, was integral again. His clever run down the left drew Aaron Hughes out of central defence to try and meet the danger, but Bellamy’s cross found Carlos Tevez in the centre. The Argentinian, full of artful touches all afternoon, controlled the ball brilliantly, skipped around Chris Smalling, and slotted home the second.
Fulham huffed and puffed but found little reward. Even with Joleon Lescott, who was injured in the warm-up, City’s defence contained Bobby Zamora very effectively and the home side were largely limited to hopeful shots from distance. Dickson Etuhu and Patrick Vieira fought an entertaining battle in central midifeld, one which the Nigerian arguably won, but Roy Hodgson’s side had too much to do to claw back such a deficit.
Indeed, City might have extended their lead long before Fulham found some much-needed urgency after Danny Murphy’s penalty had halved the arrears. The eye-catching Adam Johnson almost delivered a goal to match his stunning equaliser at Sunderland last week but his powerful right-footed drive flicked off the far post and wide with Schwarzer well beaten. Another effort from the edge of the box drifted just past the post, whilst both Santa Cruz and Bellamy passed up good chances to put the game beyond Fulham’s reach.
Such prolifigacy looked as though it might cost Roberto Mancini’s side as Fulham finally poured forward in such of an equaliser. The penalty, awarded by the assistant referee for handball against Gareth Barry, did seem harsh, but Murphy sent Shay Given, making his 500th Premier League appearance, the wrong way from the spot. Substitute Stefano Okaka missed a glorious chance to grab a point late on after Bjorn Helge Riise had squeezed a lovely through ball between the City defenders and, in injury-time, both referee and assistant declined to award a second penalty, despite Vincent Kompany’s handball looking a lot more punishable than Barry’s.
Hodgson’s team selection and relaxed attitude afterwards – even if he was critical of Fulham’s defending – showed just how this season has exceeded his expectations. By resting Brede Hangeland and removing Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera well before the end, Hodgson made clear that his priority was Wednesday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay at Tottenham. Fulham started their European odyssey with a second-string side and now Hodgson’s resting players in the league.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird (Riise 80), Konchesky, Hughes, Smalling; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera (Okaka 55); Zamora (Dempsey 52). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Shorey, Greening.
GOAL: Murphy (pen 75).
MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2): Given; Zabaleta, Garrido, Kompany, Toure; Barry, Vieira, Bellamy (Onuoha 90), A. Johnson (Wright-Phillips 84); Santa Cruz (de Jong 79), Tevez. Subs (not used): Taylor, Richards, Sylvinho, Ireland.
GOALS: Santa Cruz (7), Tevez (36).
REFEREE: Lee Probert (Gloucestershire).