If there is still a brief glimmer of life in the title race, this was an afternoon to show why, but only up to a point. Even as Manchester City returned to the top of the Premier League table, a position they are sure to seal in the coming games, Fulham rose to the challenge and gave Pep Guardiola’s side their most uncomfortable test ever. weeks. You could imagine the Arsenal fans who had switched off after Erling Haaland’s penalty within three minutes, switching back on as City were forced to watch this. He was nervous, but not for long. After all, there is a security about this side of the City that was never in question.
This was another side of City’s ability to strangle the title race and their rivals, following Wednesday’s resounding victory over Arsenal that has put the Premier League in their hands. At Craven Cottage, City were irritated for a moment 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 certainly lost their way since the first half, in which they knocked Fulham out of form and created space, a continuation of their impressive attacking form.
But on the afternoon before May, City closed it out as champions do at this time of the season: Haaland spent his last five minutes in the corner, winning a succession of throw-ins. They were celebrated as goals, but the milestone had come much earlier. Within the first three minutes there was their 50th of the season, an equalizing record 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, Julián Álvarez, relished his departure. The Argentine earned Haaland his penalty after just 90 seconds and then restored City’s lead with a thunderous shot after Vinicius equalized for the hosts.
In many ways this was Álvarez’s day, but that it came after Haaland allowed De Bruyne to thrive against Arsenal revealed the common thread. Haaland’s role is as much of a gravitational force as a striker and this city team has been so finely crafted to play through and around him. The Norwegian set up Jack Grealish twice in the first half: the first with a touch and spin that slid him inside, the second with a wonderful high pass. Grealish should have scored both, and another day Haaland could be approaching double figures for Premier League assists.
This was far from a full performance from City: Guardiola agreed it was their toughest test in weeks, but on an afternoon when they were denied space, they found it repeatedly when they were on top. On Wednesday, City faced an Arsenal side who committed to a high-pressure game that was man-for-man in defence. Fulham wouldn’t allow it that much, but City were constantly digging and changing, with Kyle Walker pummeling Grealish and Riyad Mahrez unoccupied at the far post. The only reason Fulham stayed in the game was that those players Haaland made room for couldn’t be as clinical.
In fact, this wasn’t exactly the afternoon it appeared to be when City took the lead. Vinicius’ equalizer came at Fulham’s only real moment of threat in the first half, but a team with nothing else to play for this season offered much more after the break. Vinicius nearly caught Ederson, and the Manchester City goalkeeper denied the striker when he saved a loose ball in the box with a claw to the arm. Bobby Decordova-Reid fell under Walker’s challenge, with nothing to do. Craven Cottage got up and City fell apart, with Grealish tangling with Kenny Tete in a furious exchange of words.
City had a chance to be out of sight by then. Haaland was denied by Leno at the near post of him after a clever exchange between Álvarez and Grealish. In the tight confines of Craven Cottage, City were not met by the vast expanses of the Etihad, Wembley or Allianz, where City and Haaland have opened up the spaces just to run through each and every one. They still managed to do it in parts, thanks to the system Guardiola has created, but as the title race reaches its final stages, it was the mentality of a champion that got them across the line, and that has been in their place since before Haaland arrived.