The result will soon fade from memory, and the performance already is – but recollections of a jubilant away end crying “we are top of the League” will stand as a high point in this season, whatever its ultimate outcome.
Steve Bruce carded the same XI that pulverised a hapless Charlton last week, while Fulham had ex-Tiger Tom Cairney in a side that had former England international Scott Parker also in midfield – Ross McCormack, publicly courted by our promotion rivals Middlesbrough, was conspicuously absent. “Ill”, we were told. Of course he was.
Fulham started brightly but the best chance of the opening skirmishes fell to Abel Hernández, sent clear on goal – he was on his right foot though, and his low shot lacked enough conviction to beat Andy Lonergan in the home goal. A disappointing miss given his scintillating form.
That was a rare foray forward by City, who were sitting deeply – Fulham were playing an energetic game, penning the Tigers back with considerable success. They looked a lot better than their lowly league position suggested. City weren’t playing with anything approaching their hosts’ fluency, but they were competing well, typified by a game-changing moment in the 39th minute. A low shot by Cairney seemed to wrong-foot McGregor, who could only palm the ball back into the goal area. Alexander Kačaniklić had a two yard head start on anyone else and seemed certain to score, only for Moses Odubajo to race back, overtake and successfully challenge the Swede, even winning a goal kick. From the away end, it had seemed that a goal was inevitable. Instead, it was a tremendous rescue act that was lustily celebrated by the relieved Tiger Nation.
The pattern remained largely the same in the second half. Jamie O’Hara (now there’s an unfulfilled talent) flashed a shot wide early on, Parker curled another narrowly wide, and it all began to be a bit frustrating.
Huddlestone came on for Hayden, Hernández curled a shot wide, but the game laboured and nil-nil loomed.
Until a rare moment of inspiration saw Odubajo burst into the area, hit the byline and then fall under a clumsy and not wholly necessary challenge by Christensen. It looked an obvious penalty, and the two thousand City fans howled for it. Referee Paul Tierney concurred, and with ten minutes left the Tigers had a chance to win it.
Abel Hernández stepped up, hit a shot to his left and looked aghast as Lonergan got a strong-ish palm to the ball, tipping it onto the post…and in.
Relief, exultation, and with news of Middlesbrough’s latest setback already digested, loud declarations of the latest developments in the league table cascaded from the away end.
That it was preserved was to the credit of Allan McGregor. In injury time, Fulham got a nastily promising free-kick about 25 yards goal. The wall looked horribly ill-positioned, begging for a near-post shot. One duly arrived, and it was heading perilously close to the top corner, until the City keeper flew across goal and tipped it over. A marvellous save, three points…and we are top of the league.
This wasn’t a vintage performance, and while scaling the heights of Charlton was never really likely, a better side than Fulham could have punished us. They did play above themselves, and can consider themselves unfortunate to emerge pointless.
City weren’t at their best with the ball, failing to create any concerted pressure at any point during the game. Again, it took a penalty to get us off the mark, although it was a good move that could easily have resulted in a goal anyway.
However, you can’t blitzkrieg every opponent. Sometimes you have to win ugly, or at least escape an iffy performance with a point. City were off-colour offensively, but this was also a far cry from the dire non-performances away from home at the end of 2015. City competed stoutly and were pretty solid defensively – after all, Fulham managed a few efforts on goal, but City at least ensured they were mostly outside the area. A cheap defeat wasn’t coughed up the way it would have been six weeks ago. Credit for that.
McGregor made a fine save to keep City’s sheet clean. Maguire marshalled the defence well. Odubajo prevented a Fulham goal and created ours. Hernández missed a sitter but – just – kept his nerve when mattered most.
A few negatives, but a few positives too – not the least of which was the win. If you can’t win pretty, win ugly. That’s what champions do, isn’t it?
Derby are stumbling: we’re now six points clear of third-placed Brighton, a very handy gap indeed. Promotion is very much in City’s hands, and even a Derby win tomorrow night will keep City four clear of third. We won’t be overhauled for at least a few weeks, though it may take the chasing pack longer. If they do it at all.
But maybe we can just adjust our aspirations a little higher. Middlesbrough are also stumbling, putting us top again. Sure, they have a game in hand and they’re a quality side who’ll come again, but City are also a quality side. We’re in a proper title race again.
Who knows how it’ll end? Right now, City are doing so many good things that we should just sit back and relish it. We’ve won five in a row, a tremendous achievement that most seasons slip by without producing. We’ve conceded just once in that run, scoring 12, and making the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. It’s easy to take these things for granted, but as we prepare to luxuriate in a fortnight at the summit of the second tier and aim for the Fifth Round of the Cup, let’s take a moment to enjoy it all.