Friday 23 February 2018

Fantastic Silva brace keeps City on United's title trail

Pablo Zabaleta of Manchester City challenges Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov during their Premier League encounter at the Etihad Stadium yesterday
Pablo Zabaleta of Manchester City challenges Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov during their Premier League encounter at the Etihad Stadium yesterday

This was a result served on a Silva platter. Fulham could hardly have been more accommodating; the champions hardly less under threat. They closed the gap to Manchester United to four points and will sit back this afternoon and see whether their title rivals can increase their lead again away to Spurs.

That fixture will surely be more taxing than this one. It could barely be less so but although it was a procession for City, as perhaps expected against a Fulham side who are floundering at the moment and whose manager Martin Jol is under increasing pressure, the form of David Silva was the most significant factor.

Jol was unequivocal in his assessment. "If you have Silva, then he is probably the best player in the Premier League," he said. "He was fantastic."

The Spaniard has struggled a little this season to recapture his bravura performances of the last campaign, hampered by injury and maybe also expectation, but he claimed two goals yesterday and really should have completed a first hat-trick in City colours. His link play with Carlos Tevez, at his hustling, bustling, dynamic best was the most eye-catching aspect of this encounter.

It was not a statement of intent in the way last weekend's emphatic victory away to Arsenal was but three points are three points and this emphatically informed United that this title fight is a race.

"Both teams will drop points, I'm sure before the end of the season and if United slip up we have to be in a position to take advantage of that," said City's assistant manager David Platt afterwards.

Last season it went down to goal difference and if there will be one complaint from the City management, privately at least, it was that the victory was not by a wider margin. Certainly there were fears of a rout when Silva struck after precisely one minute 35 seconds.

It came as the Fulham defenders, woefully, stood off Edin Dzeko after the ball broke to him on the edge of the penalty area. The City striker's shot was powerful, Mark Schwarzer could only parry, and there was Silva to sweep the ball into the net. It could not have been a more disastrous start for Fulham who, after this defeat, have now won just two of their last 15 matches and are now just six points above the relegation places and sliding.

They do not appear to be a happy ship. Jol left out John Arne Riise and although he dismissed claims of a bust-up and suggestions that he had refused to travel to this game the manager confirmed that he had been dropped from the squad after a woeful performance against Liverpool, in which he allowed the previously shot-shy Stewart Downing to score.

The team, Jol said, needed a shake-up. It looks like it needs another. Maybe it was too easy for City. Once ahead, with Silva's first goal in 12 games, they failed to stamp home their advantage. "We didn't really go at full throttle," Platt admitted.

Indeed City's passing was sloppy, the pace dropped, apart from Tevez's perpetual motion, and the two best opportunities of the first half then fell to Fulham. Firstly Damien Duff's centre was met by Steve Sidwell whose header brushed off by Pablo Zabaleta and struck the outside of the post and then Bryan Ruiz was picked out behind the City defence only to cross deep rather than pull the ball back to the apoplectic, unmarked Dimitar Berbatov.

On half-time Dzeko slammed a first-time shot into the side netting from a tight angle and, after the interval, he failed to fully connect with a Vincent Kompany header from a corner but it was not until the 69th minute that City killed the contest. This time Gael Clichy ran infield to find Tevez who cleverly flicked the ball through his legs to Silva. He surged on and calmly lifted his shot around Schwarzer. Within a minute Silva should have scored his third, with Tevez again the provider as he slipped the ball across the area to put the midfielder clear on goal and only for him to them scuff his shot wide.

"But he should have had a third... his performances of late have deserved more goals," said Platt. Zabaleta suffered a twisted ankle, while City had the boon of Sergio Aguero returning early from injury but he, also, was wasteful. He ran on to Dzeko's through ball and was too quick for Schwarzer only to be pushed wide and stumble as he shot and then, through again, he rolled his low effort across goal.

But the most wasteful miss fell to Dzeko who ballooned over with just Schwarzer to beat. If he had scored City would have had the same goal difference as United.


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