Mark Hughes was a satisfied man after his Fulham side left another dent in Manchester City’s remote title hopes thanks to an equaliser from Damien Duff at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon. The Welshman, sacked as City boss in 2009 to make way for Roberto Mancini, was delighted with his team’s application and character once they had gone behind to brilliant strike from Mario Balotelli and the subplot of this intriguing contest almost boiled over at the final whistle when the two managers shared the most perfunctory of post-match handshakes.
Mancini’s charges are now ten points adrift of local rivals Manchester United at the top of the table having played a game more. City looked badly short of invention without the injured David Silva but still fashioned enough chances to put this match to bed. Mancini focused his ire on Balotelli, who after scoring a splendid individual opener, concentrated on trying to repeat the feat by cracking in a number of long-range efforts but both of the hosts’ other forwards equally wasteful. The gifted Carlos Tevez appeared out of sorts whilst an ineffectual Edin Dzeko was substituted well before the end.
City looked leggy, something that will worry Mancini as they embark on a run of five matches inside eleven days. They threatened to take an early lead when Balotelli volleyed over at a corner, but Fulham played patient and composed football of their own. Danny Murphy’s drive from outside the box didn’t miss by much and Moussa Dembele drew a smart save from Joe Hart when he took aim from distance. The visitors appeared to be edging an attractive encounter until the mercurial Balotelli produced a moment of magic.
The Italian dropped off his marker, swapped passes with Tevez and drifted away from Murphy before blasting a powerful finish into the bottom corner with Mark Schwarzer totally helpless. City might have made it two almost immediately afterwards. A previously diligent defence allowed a simple ball to travel across the box to the rampaging Aleksandar Kolarov but the Serbian left back shot into the side-netting with both Tevez and Dzeko in prime position for a pass.
Fulham continued to probe, with the dangerous Dembele having a shot blocked, and Hughes’ side were level through a wonderfully worked goal three minutes after the restart. Brede Hangeland released the eager Andy Johnson away down the right, where he sauntered past Kolarov and produced a perfect cross to the far post, where Duff drilled a first-time finish past Hart from eight yards out.
The visitors had chances to go in front as well. Johnson drove disappointing at Hart after space opened up in the City defence, whilst Duff and Clint Dempsey had the beating of the home full backs. Mancini’s men did eventually revive themselves, especially once Patrick Vieira added bite to their midfield, but Balotelli contrived to miskick when it seemed easier to convert Pablo Zabaleta’s cross seven yards out and Schwarzer made excellent saves to deny Tevez and Kolarov.
It was Hughes who enjoyed his return to the blue half of Manchester the most – and even a bristling Mancini couldn’t deny Fulham were well worth a point.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Hart; Zabaleta, Kolarov (Milner 77), Lescott, Boateng; K. Toure, Y. Toure, Barry; Dzeko (Vieira 60), Tevez, Balotelli. Subs (not used): Taylor, Wabara, Jo, Guidetti.
GOAL: Balotelli (26).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Duff; Dembele; A. Johnson (Gudjohnsen 79). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Greening, Davies, Gera, Kakuta.
BOOKED: Murphy, A. Johnson.
GOAL: Duff (48).
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).