Man City show a different title-winning quality to knock Arsenal off the top
If there is still a brief flicker of life in the title race, this was an afternoon to show why, but only to a point. Even as Manchester City returned to the top of the Premier League table, a position they will surely come to seal across the next few games, Fulham rose to the challenge and gave Pep Guardiola’s side their most uncomfortable test in weeks. You could imagine the Arsenal fans who had switched off following Erling Haaland’s penalty inside three minutes, turning back on as City were made to see this out. It was nervy, but not for long. After all, there is an assurance about this City side that never looked in doubt.
This was another side of City’s ability to strangle the life out of the title race and their rivals, following the thumping win over Arsenal on Wednesday that has put the Premier League in their hands. At Craven Cottage, City were irritated for a spell and briefly lost control – Vinicius could have punished them had Ederson not recovered in time to deny what would have been an open goal. They had certainy lost their way from the first half, which saw them pull Fulham out of shape and created space, a continuation of their stunning attacking form.
But on the afternoon before May, City closed it out as champions do at around this time of the season: Haaland spent his final five minutes in the corner, winning a succession of throw-ins. They were celebrated like goals - but the landmark one had come much earlier. Within the first three minutes there was his 50th of the season, a record-equalling 34th of the Premier League campaign. If Kevin De Bruyne’s absence from the matchday squad had perhaps piqued Arsenal’s interest, the Belgian’s replacement Julian Alvarez enjoyed his outing. The Argentine won Haaland his penalty after just 90 seconds and then restored City’s lead with a thunderous strike after Vinicius had equalised for the hosts.
In many ways, this was Alvarez’s day – but that it came after Haaland allowed De Bruyne to thrive against Arsenal revealed the common denominator. Haaland’s role is as much gravitational force as striker and this City team has become so finely engineered to play through and around it. The Norwegian set up Jack Grealish twice in the first half – the first with a touch and turn that slipped him in, the second a wonderful lobbed pass. Grealish should have scored both, and on another day Haaland could be closing in on double figures for assists in the Premier League.
This was far from a complete performance from City – Guardiola agreed that it was their toughest test in weeks - but on an afternoon where they were denied space they still repeatedly found it when they were on top. On Wednesday, City faced an Arsenal side who committed to a high-pressing game that went man-for-man in defence. Fulham would not be so allowing, but City constantly probed and switched, with Kyle Walker hitting Grealish and Riyad Mahrez being left spare at the back post. The only reason Fulham remained in the game was that those players who Haaland made space for could not be as clinical.
Indeed, this wasn’t quite the afternoon it appeared to be when City went in front. The equaliser from Vinicius came from Fulham’s only real moment of threat in the first half, yet a team who have nothing left to play for this season offered much more after the break. Vinicius almost caught out Ederson, with the Manchester City goalkeeper denying the forward as he salvaged a loose ball in the box with a clawed arm. Bobby Decordova-Reid went down under the challenge of Walker, with nothing given. Craven Cottage rose and City became frayed, with Grealish tangling with Kenny Tete in a furious exchange of words.
City had the chances to be out of sight by then. Haaland was denied by Leno at his near post after a smart exchange between Alvaraz and Grealish. At the tight confines of Craven Cottage, City were not met with the vast expanses of the Etihad, Wembley, or the Allianz, where City and Haaland have opened up the spaces just to run through anyone and everyone. They still managed to do so in parts, thanks to the system that Guardiola has created, but as the title race reaches its final stages it was a champion’s mentality that helped them over the line – and that has been in place since before Haaland arrived.