It was all set up to be a routine Manchester City victory.
Pep Guardiola’s team bossed the possession from the off against a timid Fulham side, enjoying over 75 per cent of the ball when they made their pressure tell in the 17th minute. Ilkay Gundogan cut open the Cottagers with a ball slid through for Julian Alvarez to smash past Bernd Leno and set up a comfortable afternoon for the home team.
The only thing that could derail City was City themselves… and that is exactly what they did. Nathan Ake failed to deal with a simple ball over the top and when Carlos Vinicius played Harry Wilson through, Joao Cancelo was inexplicably clumsy as he barged him to the floor to concede a penalty and earn a red card.
Cancelo was not great and received an almighty bollocking from Guardiola as he left the pitch, but the greater fault lay in the collective team for allowing Cancelo – a man not known for world-class defending – to be the last man: had no lessons been taken from defeat at Anfield?
From a period of utter domination, City were suddenly in chaos. Level on the scoresheet following Andreas Pereira’s penalty, Bernardo Silva was hauled from right wing-back to the sweeper role with Rodri also helping out in defence to try and help City regain control of the match.
It worked to a degree, with Alvarez getting in behind the Fulham defence again and Manu Akanji having two decent chances with his head in the dying minutes of the half. But there was a tetchiness on display too, not least when Bernardo was booked for protesting a decision and responded by protesting against both the referee and the linesman. “You’re not fit to referee,” followed Darren England into the dressing room at half-time
Bernardo may have been running his mouth but it was his legs doing the most work. Having 10 men is much less of a disadvantage when you have a player capable of covering the ground of four men.
The livewire presence of Alvarez also kept City in the hunt for more goals. The Argentine was so eager to carry on his form from midweek he was charging into the Fulham half before the first whistle had been blown, and he used every trick available to him to keep testing the opposition defence.
With more than an hour on the clock and no sign of a breakthrough, the cavalry arrived. Erling Haaland came on for his first appearance since the trip to Dortmund and Phil Foden – on the bench for a third straight league game – replaced Jack Grealish.
The two subs seemed to have an instant impact on Fulham. City’s one-man disadvantage had not been too tiring for them because they still enjoyed so much of the ball, but equally the visitors had more than held their own since that point.
As soon as Foden and Haaland stepped onto the pitch, Fulham suddenly looked leggy – as if they were one down themselves. Kevin De Bruyne and the rest poured forward, anticipating mistakes.
Haaland missed one swipe in the box and sent another to the corner flag as he desperately reached those long legs to connect. Then came a bullet header into the net from a De Bruyne cross, only for it to be ruled out for offside on review
This was not how Guardiola had planned it. He may have called this fixture one of the toughest of the season in his programme notes but matches against Fulham and Brentford were supposed to be the six points that would put pressure on Arsenal to see who would sit on top of the Premier League table when all domestic football stops for the World Cup next week.
Instead, City were staring down the end of a proud 100 per cent home record at the Etihad this season that has spearheaded their Premier League charge and cemented them a favourable spot in the Champions League last-16 draw. Having made a reputation for comebacks against Palace and Dortmund on the back of Aston Villa at the end of last season, could they find a way to win again
Incredibly, they could. Perhaps their one-man disadvantage meant City simply could not batter the door down as you would have expected them to.
But they kept plugging away deep into five minutes of injury time, and the exhausted frame of De Bruyne still had enough energy to pirouette in the box and draw a foul from Antonee Robinson. Up stepped Haaland and, one poor but successful penalty later, he was wheeling round the Etihad with his shirt off.
City had done it again, responding to a setback at the Etihad with three priceless points. The jubilation at full-time from Haaland was quite something, bowling over with delight to the coaching staff before coming back onto the pitch to scream in celebration with his teammates.
Guardiola was as telling, urging all of his players to make their way to all four stands of the ground to celebrate a victory with the supporters that had kept them going all afternoon. He knows the importance of such moments, and how important they could be in the final reckoning.
The players left the field to the strain of ‘Campeones’ ringing in their ears, as Guardiola continued to whip up everybody he could see. Anyone transported into the scene would never think it had ‘only’ been a win over Fulham.
City, then, sleep on top of the Premier League table once more. Over to Arsenal to see what they can do at Chelsea, and Tottenham against Liverpool. Whatever happens, Guardiola will watch far more relaxed than he would have been without Haaland’s late winner.