Manchester City march a step closer to title as Gvardiol double downs Fulham

Manchester City march a step closer to title as Gvardiol double downs Fulham

Pep Guardiola had feared seeing Manchester City’s title defence kicked into the long grass at Craven Cottage but they cut yet another opponent down to size. Fulham were keen enough to make a game of things and it was no reflection on them that barely anybody has any answers when the champions take a stranglehold on proceedings like this. Only Arsenal have a chance of responding and, if a mercurial Manchester United find it in themselves to perform a neighbourly favour on Sunday, the pursuers will probably be silenced too. Two wins in the next week will see City over the line regardless of events at Old Trafford.

When the dust has settled on this season Arsenal may rue their New Year’s Eve no-show at this venue. The stakes were more obvious for City here but they never looked like fluffing their lines. Erling Haaland was off beam but the left-back Josko Gvardiol, who has produced five goals in his last seven games, simply took over instead. Gvardiol began this procession and also put City three up, Phil Foden sweeping in their second at a time when Fulham were threatening to make things vaguely awkward. Julián Álvarez finished things with a stoppage-time penalty and they were able to pop the ball around on a well-watered pitch that bore little resemblance to the kind of dry, raggedly cut surface their manager had expected to encounter in west London.

Gvardiol had not scored for City until last month, but this period of the season sometimes throws up unlikely heroes and the first of his contributions was a peach. There was none of a converted centre-back’s awkwardness in his demeanour when, after driving inside, he took a return pass from Kevin De Bruyne and evaded Issa Diop with an immaculate first touch. Now he had space to beat Bernd Leno and did so with a rolled right-footed finish from 15 yards; it was a display of running power, strength and ultimately elegance, and City had their platform.

Fulham had started brightly enough, moving around the ball quickly and recycling it with purpose as soon as it was won. Andreas Pereira won them a corner within two minutes and Antonee Robinson was incorrectly denied another after overlapping purposefully; City know better than anyone how to draw a sting, though, and the opening period’s remainder was an exercise in control.

Moments after the opener Haaland hooked too high after Bernardo Silva had headed across and City, their stride broken briefly when a stricken Nathan Aké had to be replaced by Kyle Walker, continued to dictate at near-walking pace. When a dialling-up of urgency was required Foden dashed back 50 yards to halt a dangerous Fulham break, and there was always the sense they could roll through the gears when moving forwards too.

Phil Foden shows his delight after scoring the second goalView image in fullscreen

Another Gvardiol incursion, this time streaking towards the byline and cutting back, resulted in a Silva shot that Leno caught flamboyantly. Two minutes later Leno was behind a Foden piledriver and by this point Fulham, so full of good intentions at the outset, were struggling to maintain any meaningful possession. City had two more sights of goal before the interval and Diop blocked them both, first deflecting a De Bruyne shot away and then preventing a near-certain goal for Silva.

Marco Silva rolled the dice at half-time. It was worth a shot as Fulham had not been getting anywhere, so on came Tom Cairney and Adama Traoré for Bobby Decordova-Reid and Willian. Back in October 2019 Traoré had scored twice at the Etihad for Wolves, strengthening Liverpool’s grasp on a title they ultimately won; here he took on Manuel Akanji before scooping his cross behind the goal, encapsulating a frustrating career.

Leno temporarily kept Fulham in the game with a smart near-post save from Silva after Haaland and De Bruyne had worked the opening well. Such a slender lead would leave City vulnerable to a nasty surprise and they were reminded of that in the 57th minute when Traoré, getting in behind again, centred towards Rodrigo Muniz. A toepoke from Rodri intervened but needed Ederson, previously unworked, to dive on the ball as it trickled towards goal.

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It was to be the hosts’ final glimmer. De Bruyne drew a sprawling stop from Leno and then, just before the hour, the outcome was guaranteed. Silva spun Robinson high on the right and made for the penalty area before João Palhinha halted him with a firm, fair, thudding tackle. The crowd roared their approval but were silent when Foden, spinning on to the loose ball, guided a low shot beyond Leno’s dive.

This was now a chance for City to take a chunk from Arsenal’s goal difference. Haaland, sent clear, spooned over but Gvardiol’s bearings were spot on. With 19 minutes left he stole in at the back post to squeeze in Silva’s teasing delivery with an outstretched toe; he delayed his celebration, presuming an offside, but neither the assistant referee nor a video assistant referee check detected any problems.

Right at the end Álvarez beat Leno from the spot, Diop receiving a second yellow card for fouling the scorer. Guardiola, taut throughout, could break into a smile.