Man City show how to deal with title pressure at Fulham


LONDON — Glance at the Premier League table and it looks like there’s a title race going on, but it’s days like this when Manchester City make it look more like a forgone conclusion.

Heading into the final week of the season, City are ahead of Arsenal by two points with two games remaining. All to play for, then, as a thrilling campaign reaches its dramatic climax? Probably not. City are squeezing the life out of the battle for the trophy and took another step towards a record fourth-consecutive title with a 4-0 win over Fulham on Saturday.

An early kickoff, away from home, against a team with nothing to lose; there should have been at least some jeopardy in the trip to Craven Cottage. But Pep Guardiola’s serial winners don’t do jeopardy when there’s silverware on the line, and after collecting three more points, they can sit back and watch Arsenal try to keep up when they visit Manchester United on Sunday.

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Arsenal have only won once at Old Trafford in the past 18 years, and anything less than victory this weekend will give City the chance to wrap up the title when they return to London to play Tottenham on Tuesday. It’s within touching distance.

“It was a good performance except for five or 10 minutes,” said Guardiola afterwards. “We have two games left, so go back to Manchester and soon come back to London to play Spurs. Now just focus on recovery. Playing now is good because we play early. Monday we prepare, sleep at home and then Tuesday come here. Since [Arsenal] lost against Villa [2-0 on April 14], destiny is in our hands. It’s what we want.”

Big moments can sometimes throw up unlikely heroes, and Josko Gvardiol has stepped up for City in the run-in. The 22-year-old defender had gone more than a year without a goal, but after scoring twice against Fulham, it’s now four in his past five league games.

He settled any nerves at Nottingham Forest two weeks ago with the first goal of the game and did the same here. Cutting inside from left-back, he bounced the ball off Kevin De Bruyne, took an expert touch past Issa Diop and calmly rolled his finish into the corner. That’s what €90 million gets you, even if he is supposed to be a defender.

“After the first long possession with the ball, our winger Josko scores a fantastic goal,” said Guardiola with a smile. As the ball hit the net, Guardiola didn’t change his stoney expression and instead only acknowledged the importance of the goal with a clenched fist. Wearing a thick wool sweater in the London sun, he was still the coolest man inside Craven Cottage.

Such was City’s control that it took Fulham nearly an hour to register a shot and almost immediately afterwards, Phil Foden made it 2-0. His 25th goal of the season owed everything to Bernardo Silva‘s skilful turn past Antonee Robinson and driving run inside, but Foden’s finish was calm and precise — much like City’s performance. It was only after that goal that Guardiola allowed himself a smile. Two more games like this and there will be a few more come the end of the season.

“I have the feeling they like to play with pressure,” said Guardiola. “They have incredible personalities. Players who enjoy playing with that pressure. If you lose the game you lose the Premier League, they know it. Don’t think about anything other than the next game. See what happens. Go to London, perform well, try to win the game.”

When Gvardiol got his second from Silva’s cross, the City fans behind the goal broke into a full Poznan, usually a sign that the game is over and the fun has started. With the score at 3-0, Guardiola began to turn his attention to Spurs and — depending on Arsenal’s result at United — a potential title party. De Bruyne was quickly substituted, with Foden and Erling Haaland following soon afterwards.

By the end, the Fulham fans were so demoralised by City’s relentlessness that when the board went up to show seven minutes of stoppage time, there were loud groans from the stands. They wanted it over as quickly as possible, and after an exercise of ruthless efficiency from Guardiola’s team, who could blame them? They were right to want a speedy conclusion, and in the 96th minute, substitute Julián Álvarez was brought down in the area by Diop — who was shown a second yellow card and sent off — then tucked away the penalty.

If ever there was a result to drain any remaining optimism from Arsenal, this was it. When the final whistle eventually blew, the City players strolled over to applaud their fans and were serenaded with a chorus of “champions again.” It’s hard to make a case for anything else.


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