This felt like little more than a box-ticking exercise for a team with Manchester City’s ambitions. There was never any jeopardy, no sense that they were ever in any danger against opponents with all the nous and snarl of a sleeping kitten, and City did not have to do much more than tickle Fulham’s tummy to return to the Premier League’s summit.
It was over as a contest long before the end, goals from Bernardo Silva and Sergio Agüero enough for Pep Guardiola’s side, who will be hoping for a slip-up when Liverpool host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
The pressure is back on Jürgen Klopp’s side, who will start a point below the leaders when they face Spurs. City will have their feet up when they watch that one and they will have plenty of energy in their legs when they host Cardiff City on Wednesday given that Fulham, 13 points below 17th-placed Burnley with six games left, barely forced them to break into a sweat on a low-key afternoon by the Thames.
The task of puncturing the worst defence in the league proved predictably straightforward for City. They got down to business straight away, setting up camp in Fulham’s half from first whistle to last, and were so dominant that it almost felt as though they had wasted time by waiting until the fifth minute to break the deadlock.
Fulham, cautious and timid in their 5-4-1 system, had intended to frustrate Guardiola’s illustrious attack by sitting deep and waiting for opportunities to appear on the break. The problem with that ploy, however, is that Scott Parker’s players were riddled with anxiety even on the rare occasions when they had possession. Unable to cope with City’s high press, they were punished for trying to play out from the back when Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s errant pass went to Kevin De Bruyne instead of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa.
Bad idea. The ball was nestling in the back of Fulham’s net in a matter of seconds. De Bruyne, starting for the first time since 2 March after shaking off a hamstring problem, quickly found Agüero, who looked right and saw Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese midfielder cut inside, ignored a couple of limp challenges and fizzed a crisp drive inside the right post from 20 yards, confirming the suspicion that Fulham were horribly out of their depth against opponents of this calibre.
It barely resembled a contest as City rained attempts on Sergio Rico’s goal for the rest of the half. David Silva was at his creative best in midfield, De Bruyne looked free of rust and Raheem Sterling, brimming with confidence on the left flank, relished running at the nervous Cyrus Christie. Fulham, bereft of belief, could not get close to them. They looked like crumbling every time City attacked and were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Fosu-Mensah, who was having a shocking game in central defence, clattered into Sterling in the 30th minute.
Kevin Friend’s refusal to point to the spot was only a minor irritation for City given that they had doubled their lead three minutes earlier. Once again Fulham were punished for their sloppiness, Joe Bryan’s miscued pass giving Bernardo Silva the chance to free Agüero, who swept past the ineffective Maxime Le Marchand before lifting a lovely shot over the advancing Rico.
Resigned to their fate, Fulham had no threat without Alexsandar Mitrovic leading their attack and the absence of any dramatic tension sucked the energy out of the ground. The home fans indulged themselves with a few ironic olés whenever their team managed to string more than two passes together and chortled when Nicolás Otamendi hoofed a shot out of the ground, but otherwise they watched in near silence. Even a protest about expensive ticket prices in the 55th minute lacked any real spark or purpose.
If there was a disappointment for City, it was failing to make their goal difference even more imposing. De Bruyne scuffed straight at Rico after bursting through what passed for Fulham’s defence. Ilkay Gündogan whipped a venomous effort over the angle of post and bar. Sterling threatened with a bouncing effort. Guardiola will want sharper finishing against better opponents.
But that was a minor quibble. Ederson did not have to make a serious save and Guardiola was able to withdraw Agüero and De Bruyne long before the end. Tougher tests lie in wait.