City dropped two vital points as Fulham came from behind to take a share of the spoils at the City of Manchester Stadium in a largely disappointing 1-1 draw.
Mario Balotelli had given the Blues the lead midway through the first half with a spectacular strike from outside the box, but there were worrying signs of fatigue from Roberto Mancini’s side as the game progressed.
Damien Duff ‘s equaliser two minutes after the break proved enough the Cottagers to travel home with a point they probably just about deserved.
As feared, Vincent Kompany didn’t make the starting line-up having failed to recover from the hip injury he sustained against Aris in midweek and there was still no Nigel de Jong or Micah Richards, either.
James Milner at least made the bench, but what wasn’t expected was the absence of play-maker David Silva, who picked up an ankle knock in against the Greeks.
Mancini must have been worried before kick-off about who would take over the creative mantle from the talented Spaniard who he will be hoping receovers in time for the visit of Aston Villa on Wednesday.
Of course, the main focus prior to the game was the return of former manager Mark Hughes who took his seat under the glare of a dozen cameras, but it was all pretty low key in truth.
City were aiming to beat the Cottagers at home for only the second time in eight attempts at the City of Manchester Stadium – and prevent Fulham from adding to their tally of 12 Premier League goals during that period – bizarrely all scored in the second half.
Defeat was not an option for the Blues with Manchester United and Arsenal pulling ever further clear and Chelsea and Tottenham breathing down City’s necks in the race for Champions League qualification.
If this is really the part of the season when the tough get going, the Blues needed to forget absent friends and grind out three points that would consolidate third place and, in turn, pressurise those immediately above and below.
With barely 300 travelling fans, most of the early entertainment was generated by the City supporters taunting each other with a selection of songs usually saved for visiting fans, otherwise there was little worthy of note in the opening 25 minutes – it was the 26th minute that finally had the home fans on their feet.
There seemed little threat as Balotelli picked up the ball outside the Fulham box and less still as he played it left to Carlos Tevez who, after deciding his options were limited at best, returned the ball to the Italian striker.
One drop of the shoulder later, the ball was nestling in the back of the Fulham net with Mark Schwarzer beaten by a Balotelli howitzer from 20 yards
...City v Fulham
It was his ninth goal in 11 starts and offered further proof of why his manager rates him so highly.
With no further scoring in the first half and the visitors failing to find the net in the opening period for the eighth successive time, the big question was – would the Fulham jinx strike yet again?
Within two minutes of the re-start, the answer was a resounding yes, as Andrew Johnson sped down the right to whip in a cross Damien Duff swept home from six yards.
Fulham continued to threaten thereafter, targeting raids down the right flank where Johnson and Duff were causing numerous problems. City had their chances, too, with Tevez and Kolarov forcing decent saves from Schwarzer, but overall the Blues looked jaded and short on ideas in what was a disappointing afternoon overall.