The Manchester City machine is cranking inexorably into life. This was another performance delivered in fits and starts, with only flashes of the dazzle of which they are clearly capable, but the huff and puff was still rewarded late on.
A stodgy recent run of results has been checked and momentum has been injected into the champions' campaign. Roberto Mancini's bold pre-match insistence that his team "will win the title" for a second year in succession feels more plausible.
The manager's urgency to arrest the longest winless sequence of his tenure – albeit one that stretched to only four matches – was obvious, as attacking players were drip-fed into the contest's latter stages in a bid to secure the victory. A draw at Fulham, an impressive collective with bite on the break, might normally constitute an acceptable result, but City needed a fillip with Chelsea having already won and Borussia Dortmund due at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday in the Champions League.
By the end they had six forward-thinking players pouring towards the hosts. But Fulham might still have held out had panic not set in as full-time approached. City would not be denied. The winner was slammed into the roof of the net by Edin Dzeko with virtually his first touch of the game, Gaël Clichy's cross having been flicked on by another substitute, Mario Balotelli, before John Arne Riise's headed clearance squirmed off Brede Hangeland and into the Bosnian's path.
Dzeko has started this season with the same flurry of goals as last time around. He will hope to sustain his form more consistently from now on in, though competition for places in this frontline is ferocious.
Sergio Agüero's equaliser, just before the interval, had been his first reward since winning City their Premier League title in the death throes of last season, yet the Argentinian feels like a first-choice amid this company.
The quartet of forwards, with Carlos Tevez thrown in, will always benefit if their team-mates retain possession as they did here, with hints aplenty that David Silva is stirring as if roused by Yaya Touré's thunderous presence at his side. Mancini pointed to the performance, rather than the result, as key. "It's important not only because we won, but because we played very well," he said. "And we did play really well."
That was said with obvious satisfaction and yet City are only warming up. They were off the pace for the opening 20 minutes and behind. Indeed, it was as if their predicament only dawned upon them 10 minutes before the interval. Thereafter, they pressed until Fulham were cracked open.
Martin Jol acknowledged Fulham's retreat, all the early urgency that had yielded Mladen Petric's penalty fizzling out. They had merited that lead, even if the penalty award felt soft: Pablo Zabaleta did appear to tug down on Riise, possibly just outside the area, though what was more baffling was referee Mark Halsey's reluctance to acknowledge a similar offence at the other end of the pitch, when Riise pulled down on Tevez.
Regardless, Petric converted the spot-kick with confidence and had Bryan Ruiz subsequently beaten Joe Hart, the complexion of the match might have changed. Instead, City were shrugged awake and Fulham could not cope.
"It wasn't our intention to sit back, but they were too good for us," said Jol. "After that first half an hour, all we did was defend. They were stronger than us and more eager to score. We could only defend, defend, defend, which is probably not enough against them."
The Fulham manager will hope to add at least one midfield reinforcement next week, with interest retained in the free agents Nigel Reo-Coker and Mickaël Tavares. His team feels like a work in progress and this result should not demoralise them.
Yet, for City, it can serve to inspire. A team in search of its rhythm will be encouraged that a deficit could be overturned. They had threatened to level, with Mark Schwarzer clutching a loose ball on his goalline and palming Silva's effort away, before Tevez was permitted time to spit a shot diagonally across the penalty area and Silva sprinted between opponents to touch the ball cleverly goalwards. Schwarzer did wonderfully well to push away that effort at full stretch, but Agüero reacted quicker than Sascha Riether at the far post to convert the rebound into an empty net.
"The guys continued to play their football and always stayed calm," said Mancini. "But we wouldn't have deserved just to draw."
Dzeko's intervention ensured they had reason instead to celebrate.
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image: © Andrew Brannan