Sunday, 30 September 2012

Fulham 1 Manchester City 2

Without question, this was one of the most attractive fixtures I’ll find myself at this season - the Champions of England in West London, playing a resurgent Fulham at Craven Cottage, the ground on the banks of the Thames resplendent in the late September sunshine.

Very pretty it all was in setting, but this match was as close to a siege as you will find in the game of football. And it came with all the associated close-quarters scrapping and combat. 

City’s three-pronged attack of Tevez, Aguero and Silva buzzed around the penalty area like bees would a honey pot. Tevez, all bluster and unnecessary petulance, was undoubtedly Queen Bee.

The game was a recurring vision. Cute little passes backwards and forwards along the periphery of the area, the ball whisked out to one flank, then a quickstep change and it was back over on the other side, the white-shirted Fulham players trying gamely to stem the flow and survive until they could quell the onslaught with another punt upfield. 

The only surprise about this match was that it took City 87 minutes to hit the front. Of course, to keep plugging away for so long against such spirited resistance is the hallmark of Champions, but given their three-quarter dominance of possession and practical encampment in the Fulham half, this should have been a much more comfortable result.

But because the knockout blow came so late, it made it all the more agonising for plucky Fulham, whom it seemed at times were being slow cooked while still alive. No pushovers this season, the hosts had taken an early lead from the penalty spot and fooled us all into thinking they might gain an unlikely point until Edin Dzeko scored a well-taken winner. 

Huw had sorted excellent seats for this encounter, just four or five rows back from the pitch behind the goal in the Hammersmith End. We were beneath the players and it was nice to watch a top game where you were up close and personal rather than watching a group of specks run around from the Gods. 

The atmosphere in the home section was excellent throughout, with the crowd willing their team to hold out against the blue tide. The City fans were subdued - or were at least drowned out - until late in the second half. 

In glorious sunshine, the game started at frenetic pace, and in just the ninth minute came the first moment of controversy. Mark Halsey had been centre of attention in the Liverpool vs Manchester United match last Sunday and hopes of a quiet afternoon were dashed when Zabaleta blocked off John Arne Riise’s run into the area.   

Some 120 yards from the incident, we were in no position to make judgement and, indeed, it took a few seconds for the people at our end of the ground to realise a penalty had been awarded. Mladen Petric gave Joe Hart no chance and the contest was ignited.

The remainder of the half followed an identical pattern. City would progress forward, work the ball between their triumvirate of silky Latin players - sometimes aided by Yaya Toure - before Fulham would throw a body in the way or momentarily snatch the ball back. This happened over and over and over again until a City equaliser was inevitable.

There had been hairy moments - the excellent Hangeland hacked the ball off the line, while Mark Schwarzer managed to smother the ball on the line following one of many goalmouth scrambles. Tevez had an afternoon to forget - his work-rate is ever admirable but he didn’t instigate a great deal.

He fell clumsily when tugged back by Riise in the box and gesticulated wildly from the deck, veins in his neck throbbing, expression disbelieving and hands imploring the referee to give a penalty. Halsey sought no further controversy. 

The minutes slipped by until the respite of half-time, but a City leveller was as inevitable as the sunset. Of course, Tevez was involved, feeding the ball in for Silva to nudge goalwards. Schwarzer repelled, but Aguero, right in front of our position, had an easy finish at the back post. 

The second-half was, if anything, even more one directional. Now attacking away from us, we saw little of the action as City laid siege once again. Hart, who was warmly received by the home crowd, must have seen the ball a mere five or six times. 

And yet City’s heavy artillery was misfiring. Their fans grew unsettled and optimism in the home support grew. You would glance at the scoreboard at every lull in the attack and see another ten minutes had slipped by. 

Roberto Mancini, acutely aware that his confident side of last season would have the game secured by now, gambled and threw on first Mario Balotelli and then Dzeko. 

While the Italian, who replaced a by now infuriated Tevez, was hopeless, Dzeko’s introduction was unfortunately inspired. Clichy crossed, Riise tried in vain to clear and with impeccable composure, Dzeko swivelled and found the top corner through a  phalanx of bodies. 

There was an audible groan of resignation. The thing everybody had expected to happen had happened. There was no time to counter-attack and respond. 

Mark of champions? Yes. 

Next match: From the salubrious surroundings of Fulham to Tadcaster Albion, where Boston United continue on the FA Cup trail next Saturday.