What a difference a couple of wins make. Manchester City have secured back-to-back top-flight victories for the first time this season and as a result - despite their many struggles over the opening months of the campaign - the Premier League table is beginning to look a lot healthier.
Pep Guardiola’s side lifted themselves from the bottom-half to within reach of the top four thanks to a 2-0 victory over Fulham and will end the weekend six points off the summit with a game in hand, at worst. Any suggestions that City were out of the title race by winning just three of their first eight games were grossly premature.
All they needed were a couple of home bankers, with this comfortable win through a Raheem Sterling goal and a Kevin De Bruyne penalty following Burnley’s emphatic 5-0 defeat here a week ago. City hoover up points in this type of fixture. This was their 40th consecutive game unbeaten against newly-promoted opposition at the Etihad, having only drawn four of those encounters.
It is unfortunate for Fulham that they should have to visit the Etihad after their impressive win away to Leicester City on Monday night and just when presented with an opportunity to build some much-needed momentum. It does not get any easier for Scott Parker and his players, who welcome champions Liverpool to Craven Cottage next Sunday.
Parker will have been encouraged by elements of what he saw - Fulham no longer look entirely out of their depth at this level, as they did in September - but while they kept the scoreline respectable, they posed next to no threat and were fighting an uphill battle from the fourth minute and Sterling’s opening goal.
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Having not started either the defeat at Tottenham a fortnight ago or last week’s win at Burnley, this was a most welcome goal for Sterling. Guardiola has indirectly challenged some of his players in public recently, insisting that those who play are deserving of selection and by extension, those who don’t are not.
It is fair to say that Sterling was among the targets of those barbed comments but his composed finish around Fulham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola after collecting De Bruyne’s through ball meant he took this opportunity to regain his automatic starting status quickly. Guardiola has also said that those who score will keep their place.
Sterling then won the penalty for the second, though Fulham captain Joachim Andersen had a right to feel aggrieved. His contact with Sterling - knee-to-knee, it seemed, and only a knick at that - was minimal but neither referee Jonathan Moss or Graham Scott, the VAR, deemed the decision to award a penalty worthy of a review.
De Bruyne dispatched the spot-kick, having missed his last in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool, and could have ended the day with a couple more. Instead, he could only find the crossbar a few minutes into the second half after combining well with Gabriel Jesus on a devastating counter-attack.
De Bruyne was put through again a few minutes later by Riyad Mahrez on another lightning transition from defence to attack but hesitated slightly as he bore down on Areola and the Fulham goalkeeper parried to safety. Ruben Dias missed City’s other clear chance for a third, heading a De Bruyne free-kick wide after peeling away from his markers.
No matter. Try as they might to initiate counter-attacks of their own, Fulham ended the day with only one shot on target, a tame Ivan Cavaleiro effort that was saved easily by Ederson. City otherwise entirely dictated the play, offering up a reminder of how utterly dominant they can be. That form has eluded them at times this season but, ahead of a Manchester derby at Old Trafford next weekend, they are looking like contenders again.
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