Manchester City ended their fourth game of the season cruising, their fans enjoying themselves as the team played out what the scoreline will read as a comfortable win. Oscar Bobb came on for his senior debut for the final few minutes of a 4-1 win that the league table will rightly record as perfection in these early stages.
In reality, this had been anything but easy in a game where the Blues were left happy to be on the right side of a refereeing controversy as the officials helped them at a crucial time. It was probably best for everyone that Pep Guardiola was hundreds of miles away or his rehabiliation may have been put back by the drama and frustration that played out across a sunny Etihad.
The last time such a bizarre decision unfolded Bruno Fernandes was celebrating a derby equaliser in a game United would go on to win after a farcical non-offside call that it was later admitted would never be seen again. Nathan Ake&aposs goal against Fulham was less ridiculous but still obvious enough that former City goalkeeper David James said on an official City broadcast that the wrong call had been made.
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Ake had done everything right, planting a header beyond the despairing dive of Bernd Leno to put a scrappy City back into the lead. The problem was that his fellow defender Manu Akanji had been stood in an offside position in front of him, and as he tried to get out of the way it caused Leno to delay his dive.
What happened next is unclear. Michael Oliver went over to his linesman to consult over the decision but gave a goal, before a VAR check upheld that decision – but who gave what and why remains a mystery.
As the replay went up on the big screen, Fulham&aposs players became even more furious and refused to restart the match. Marco Silva, booked in the first three matches of this season, did well to keep his temper in the face of what was effectively a repeat of the Fernandes goal at Old Trafford; Akanji may not have touched the ball but he still interfered with play.
City needed the break that day in January and didn&apost get it, but went on to make it irrelevant to their wider season anyway. The challenge now will be to make this game and performance forgotten as quickly as they can.
Three points are three points and should not be sniffed yet this was by far the scratchiest of City&aposs four so far this season. Whether coincidence or not, without the control of the injured Jack Grealish there was no control of the football and very little rhythm.
Grealish&aposs absence opened up a first start for Jeremy Doku, who arrived in the summer window for 55m and is seen as a fresh option in the Leroy Sane mould that can be direct and excite fans. His trickery was enough to earn Issa Diop a yellow for taking him down on the edge of the box, although otherwise his struggles to make an impact was highlighted by him switching wings with Phil Foden after just 20 minutes.
The sight of Manu Akanji playing the John Stones role and passing without looking to where he thought Doku would be summed up the problems City made for themselves in the first half: it looked like the City everybody knows, except the parts were different enough for it not to function.
That didn&apost seem to matter just after the 30-minute mark when Mateo Kovacic showed his increasing ability to mimic Ilkay Gundogan as he slipped Erling Haaland through in the box. The run was perfectly timed and whether he shot or squared the ball it went across for Julian Alvarez to tap in the opening goal.
On another day, that would have been the start of a romp. Instead, City&aposs lack of control let Fulham in immediately. They conceded more corners to Fulham in the first half than they had against Sheffield United and Newcastle combined, and the marking was absent as Raul Jimenez flashed a shot at goal that Bobby De Cordova-Reid got on the end of before Tim Ream followed up when Ederson could only parry.
City were still struggling with themselves as much as Fulham when, in the fourth of five minutes of first-half stoppage time, Ake headed in and pandemonium broke out. As the visitors stewed at half-time, the Blues used that time to regain control.
The pressure had been building for some time when Haaland latched onto an Alvarez through-ball that had bounced off Ream, and slotted past Leno. City have no better player at putting difficult moments behind them to focus on what is in front of them.
That was demonstrated again when Alvarez fell softly in the box and referee Oliver pointed to the spot. Despite last week&aposs miss, Haaland stepped up again and scored. It was his 37th goal in 28 appearances at the Etihad and the biggest surprise in that remarkable stat was that he hadn&apost scored in his last four.
With Fulham mentally on the bus back to West London, Bobb showed some silky touches for his debut before fellow substitute Sergio Gomez set up the inevitable Haaland hat-trick. City had been scratchy, but had also won 5-1.