Fulham’s task at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon – nullifying the holders in an attempt to prolong their interest in the FA Cup – was herculean enough, even if Pep Guardiola had shuffled his considerable pack before kick off. Any hope the visitors had of springing a surprise vanished when Tim Ream, who had never before been sent off in more than 300 matches in English football, hauled down Gabriel Jesus as the Brazilian burst beyond him to concede a penalty. The stand-in skipper was sent off, Ilkay Gundogan stroked home the penalty and Fulham’s afternoon immediately became an exercise in damage limitation.
Scott Parker, like Slavisa Jokanovic before him, sticks to his principles of playing out of the back, but against one of the most potent strikeforces in Europe it was akin to a recipe for disaster. Ream and company had already been caught out at Kenilworth Road on Boxing Day taking unnecessary risks at the back and the American was fortunate not to have been punished even before his sending off when a crazy piece of distribution almost let in Jesus.
The surprise was that City, who appeared able to play through their Championship opponents at will, hadn’t added more than a sumptuous second from Bernado Silva by the break. The Portuguese midfielder produced a pirouette even Parker would have been proud of and lashed past Marek Rodak from 20 yards to double City’s lead but a perfectionist like Guardiola would have been irritated that they hadn’t made more of their numerical advantage. Angelino, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez all wasted good opportunities to increase the home side’s advantage, whilst Fulham’s only moment of promise came when a spirited solo run from Bobby Decordova-Reid ended with Claudio Bravo saving at his near post.
Ten-man Fulham resisted stubbornly for 27 second-half minutes before conceding two goals in 180 seconds that saw the scoreline more accurately reflect City’s overwhelming dominance of proceedings. Michael Hector and Terence Kongolo were steady in the circumstances in their first outing as a pairing at centre back – with the on-loan Huddersfield defender producing one stupendous block to prevent Jesus from rifling home inside the six-yard box. He did just about enough to put off substitute Raheem Sterling when the substitute was played in by the peerless David Silva – the England winger’s rising drive cannoned off the crossbar instead.
But Fulham couldn’t keep City’s constant attacks at bay for much longer. They were the architects of their own downfall once again. Kongolo presented the ball to Sterling on the City right and Joao Cancelo’s deep cross was headed home by Jesus, who looked suspiciously close to being offside – but the goal was awarded after a lengthy VAR delay. A fourth arrived after the otherwise impressive Hector was robbed by Jesus. Rodak made a superb save from Phil Foden, but the Brazilian nodded home the rebound.
Parker handed teenage winger Sylvester Jasper a senior debut in the closing stages – but this was largely a day to forget for Fulham, serving as a painful reminder of their brief Premier League sojourn last season. The task to make up ground on the Championship’s top two – West Brom and Leeds – begins again in earnest against Huddersfield next week, although it appears unlikely that Aleksandar Mitrovic, Anthony Knockaert or Aboubakar Kamara – so sorely missed over the last week – will be able to play any part against the Terriers.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Bravo; Cancelo, Angelino, Otamendi (Stones 74), Garcia; Gundogan (Rodri 75), D. Silva, Foden; Mahrez (Sterling 53), B. Silva, Jesus. Subs (not used): Ederson, Zinchenko, de Bruyne, Aguero.
GOALS: Gundogan (8), B. Silva (19), Jesus (72, 75).
FULHAM (3-4-1-2): Rodak; Hector, Ream, Kongolo (Jasper 83); Christie, Bryan, S. Sessegnon, Johansen; Onomah; Decordova-Reid (Odoi 78), Cavaleiro (Cairney 67). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, McDonald, de la Torre, Stansfield.
SENT OFF: Ream (6).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).