Verdict: Fulham 1 Manchester City 2
Goals: Murphy (pen) 75 for Fulham. Santa Cruz 7, Tevez 36 for City.
City proved good value for victory over Fulham with goals from Santa Cruz and Tevez vindicating Roberto Manchini’s attacking line-up. Despite missing several chances to increase our lead, City survived a couple of late scares with the score at 2-1 following a questionable penalty against Gareth Barry.
Once again the manager confounded expectations with his starting eleven. Joleon Lescott was due to play at left-back before a hamstring strain in the warm-up saw him replaced by Javier Garrido. The spaniard’s place on the bench was taken by Micah Richards, who was set to be dropped from the squad altogether.
While there was always a chance of Mancini giving Vieira a start, it was still a surprise to see Nigel de Jong on the bench. Following the second-half showing at Sunderland, both Santa Cruz and Adam Johnson started the game. This meant a 4-4-2 and it was clear from the outset that Mancini was looking to take the game to Fulham.
There seems to have been a realisation following the Sunderland match that we need to attack from the outset and go for victories, if we’re to claim a Champions League spot. Tottenham are currently on a roll and both Villa and Liverpool are unlikely to throw the towel in. As a result Mancini’s strategy of keeping it tight in games before striking late on now appears to risky.
This game was arguably Mancini’s best showing against a side outside the ‘big four’. Previously the Italian appeared to enjoy the tactical jousts against United, Liverpool and Chelsea, but had struggled for convincing performances against lesser sides. Even when we’d won convincingly against Wolves and Blackburn there were periods when we laboured.
At Craven Cottage it was only wayward finishing that prevented a more convincing victory. There was a much better balance between attack and defence with Santa Cruz again providing the link-up play that prevents Tevez becoming isolated.
A key indicator in the change of tactics was seeing Garrio getting forward and overlapping Bellamy when we were 2-0 up. It’s doubtful he was doing this without the manager’s approval, so we were clearly not looking to simply close the game out.
For all his willingness to get forward, Garrido remained a liability defensively, often failing to get tight enough on opponents. We got away with it here, but David Moyes is likely to pinpoint any weakness.
A more dynamic Everton side may cause more problems to a central midfield pairing of Barry and Vieira. Against Danny Murphy, they were never going to be tested for pace, and Dickson Etuhu must have felt like Usain Bolt in comparison to this collection of midfielders.
It would be wrong to knock Vieira on this showing though, as he retains the ability to play astute passes and keep things ticking over in the middle of the park. Whether Mancini was resting de Jong with the Everton game in mind is an intriguing question and it will be interesting to see if he starts on Wednesday. His dynamism may well be needed at some point.
Picking Kolo Toure for this fixture made sense as the Ivorian is at his best against the Premier League’s more footballing sides. It’s doubtful whether any of our other centre-backs could have shown the athleticism for the goal-line clearance just prior to our first strike.
Both goals came courtesy of our speed on the break, which had been a hallmark of the Mark Hughes era. This tactic had seemingly been lost when Mancini was focusing on possession and the patient build-up. It’s good to see it back, as it’s the real strength of Bellamy. His link-up play with Tevez is growing by the game, with the second goal being the highlight here.
“We started well, scored two great goals and had many chances to make the game safe a long time before Fulham scored. I thought the whole team played really well, but we needed to take one of the chances early in the second half.
“We played with four attack-minded players in Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez, Adam Johnson and Craig Bellamy, but it was important that we had a good balance throughout the rest of the team and if we have this, we can play in this style.”
Adam Johnson continued to show great control and ability. The next step for him will be to link up with his fellow attackers a little more and we should see a few more goals from the England hopeful.
With Adebayor still suspended for the Everton game, it was worrying to see Santa Cruz limp off. That’s a game when we’ll need to show our physical strength as well as our skill. Playing 4-4-2 suited us here, and it was the attacking intent from the outset that was the real pleasure.
Seven points out of nine from three away fixtures sets us up nicely for the games to come. The team are looking more settled and the manager seems to better understand the players at his disposal. This was a fixture where previously we’d have dropped points: not this time.