Lightning doesn’t strike twice. Scott Parker opted for the same tactics that had secured Fulham a surprise win at Leicester City on Monday, but Manchester City were simply too strong for his battling side at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon. There was an inevitably about the outcome once Raheem Sterling had ended his six game scoreless streak with a clinical finish from Kevin De Bruyne’s precise pass inside five minutes and Fulham’s task became even more herculean after the England winger went to ground under the slightest contact from Joachim Andersen and De Bruyne dispatched the spot-kick. Fulham didn’t fold, and there was much to admire in their work rate and defensive diligent, but they rarely threatened in the final third.
Parker’s blueprint was similar to the one that had so startled Leicester at the King Power Stadium earlier in the week. Happy to allow City to dictate proceedings, the visitors aimed to frustrate their illustrious opponents and spring into life on the counter-attack. The reality was that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was starved of much service, whilst Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid were more regularly found trying to suppress wave after wave of City attacks rather than making their presence felt in the opposition half.
Fulham began brightly, with a typically rampaging run from the excellent Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa hinting at an opening for Cavaleiro, but City could have been in front before Sterling’s opener. Gabriel Jesus opened up the Fulham back four with a perfectly weighted pass, but Sterling’s snapshot was pushed away by Alphonse Areola. There was no such reprieve ninety seconds, later, however. De Bruyne surged through the centre of midfield, slipped Sterling between the Fulham centre halves with a gorgeous pass and Sterling measured his finish perfectly to find the bottom corner.
The Fulham goal then came under sustained attack. Joao Cancelo was probably a little ambitious with a curling effort from 25 yards out, but after the Whites had half cleared a corner, City came much closer. The lively Riyad Mahred fed de Bruyne on the right side of the box and the Belgian tried to a sneak a shot in at the near post. Areola did superbly to keep it out, especially as he could have easily been wrongfooted by a late deflection off Harrison Reed.
City’s second came from the spot when Sterling was caught by Andersen as he looked to locate half a yard of space in the penalty area. Jon Moss gave the decision instantly, with the England international needing little encouragement to go down, and, although he made a meal of it, the contact meant it was unlikely to be overturned by the video assistant referee. De Bruyne duly dispatched the penalty, sending Areola the wrong way, and giving the home side the reward on the scoreboard their early dominance had deserved.
The closest Fulham came to making an impression themselves was courtesy of John Stones, who almost scored a comical own goal when he decided to play a 45-yard back pass to Ederson without checking whether the Manchester City goalkeeper was actually in his goal. The ball drifted wide of the net and Toisin Adarabioyo couldn’t cap an accomplished return to his former stomping ground when his free header from the corner looped off target. Areola made a couple of further smart saves before the break to keep the deficit down. At times, it looked like City could have scored at will.
In truth, it was an exercise in damage limitation once the mercurial de Bruyne had stroked in the penalty. Fulham were much more competitive in the second period after a tweak in the formation at half-time. City still enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but were unable to add to their advantage. Sometimes that required good fortune, like when de Bruyne finished a lightning home break five minutes into the second half by rattling the crossbar after Mahrez and Jesus had combined to work the opening, and on other occasions it owed much to Areola’s excellence. The French goalkeeper spread himself brilliantly to deny de Bruyne again seven minutes later when the midfield metronome found himself through on goal moments after Fulham had forced a corner.
Reuben Dias spurned two chances from free-kicks to open his City account, before Fulham began to pose a threat at the other end. Cavaleiro linked nicely with Anguissa down the Fulham right before cutting inside and firing the goalwards, but it was a routine save for Ederson at his near post. Parker’s side stayed true to their footballing principles and a lovely move down the right worked some space for substitute Aboubakar Kamara to shoot from outside the box. His effort had Ederson scrambling across his goal-line but ended up going wide.
Aleksandar Mitrovic simmered menacing on the bench throughout. The Serbian striker might have offered Fulham a different option in attack, but perhaps he has been saved for unleashing on the champions next week. Fulham’s tough trio of fixtures finishes with Liverpool coming to Craven Cottage in front of 2,000 fans next Sunday – although Parker will be pleased both with the win at Leicester and the application of his charges on a difficult afternoon today. There’s no disgrace in losing to a Guardiola side and his team were far from embarrassed. They are looking less like the league’s whipping boys with every week.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-2-3-1): Ederson; Cancelo, Mendy, Dias, Stones; Rodri, Gundogan; Mahrez, Sterling, De Bruyne; Jesus. Subs (not used): Steffen, Laporte, Garcia, Fernandinho, Silva, Torres, Foden.
GOALS: Sterling (5), De Bruyne (pen 26).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Reed (Lemina 68), Anguissa; Decordova-Reid (Kamara 72), Lookman, Loftus-Cheek (Cairney 83); Cavaleiro. Subs (not used): Rodak, Ream, Bryan, Mitrovic.
REFEREE: Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).