Coming out of the international break nearing full strength, Manchester City look to reclaim a provisional lead atop the Premier League table Saturday when they face relegation-threatened Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Still angling for three trophies to add to their League Cup title, City (24-2-4) are two points back of Liverpool with eight matches remaining and have one match in hand – the Manchester derby to be played at home April 24. With Liverpool facing Tottenham in a juicy clash Sunday, the Citizens not only have a chance to apply pressure on the table-topping Reds but also add to their already superior goal difference against a Fulham side who have shipped a league-worst 70 goals.
City have been imperious coming out of previous international breaks this season, winning their three matches by a combined 12-0 scoreline. That included a 3-0 thumping of Fulham in the reverse fixture Sept. 15 when Leroy Sane, David Silva, and Raheem Sterling all scored in the first 47 minutes.
Sterling comes out of the international break in form befitting his name, having totaled four goals while assisting on three others as England began Euro2020 qualifying with impressive demolitions of the Czech Republic and Montenegro. He recorded a hat trick versus the Czech Republic and doubled his international goal haul in the last two matches after totaling four goals in his first 47 appearances with the Three Lions.
Sterling also shook off the racist taunts of the Montenegro crowd during the match and later took to Instagram with a picture of his celebrating the win with the caption, “Best way to silence the haters (yeah I mean racists).”
“It is a shame we are talking about this,” Sterling told The Times. “It’s 2019 and there should be a real punishment for this, not just with a few people being banned. The stadium holds 15,000 and I think the punishment should be that as a nation if your fans are chanting racist abuse, the whole stadium can’t watch it.”
This is Manchester City’s first league match in three weeks, with their last contest before the break a dramatic 3-2 win at Swansea City on March 16 to reach the FA Cup semifinals and keep alive the dreams of an unprecedented quadruple. Bernando Silva started the fightback from two goals down in the 69th minute, and Sergio Aguero bagged the match-winner two minutes from time.
Aguero is also in blistering form with 11 goals in his last 10 matches for City in all competitions. The Argentina international had an assist in the September win and has totaled four goals and three assists in six lifetime matches versus the Cottagers.
City are unbeaten in their last 11 matches (10-1-0) in all competitions and have won five on the trot overall. Centre back John Stones and left back Fabian Delph were dropped from the England squad during the break due to injury, but Stones appears closer to a return, as is central midfield linchpin Fernandinho. Kevin De Bruyne also returned to training this week, but his status is less certain.
Fulham (4-5-22) are still facing a massive uphill climb to avoid relegation, entering this match needing to overturn a 14-point deficit in the final seven matches. The Cottagers have lost seven on the trot in league play and have conceded two or more goals in their last 12 contests in all competitions.
Scott Parker, the club’s third manager in this trying season, is under no illusions how difficult a task it will be to get any sort of result that helps Fulham escape the drop.
“We’re up against a well-drilled, well-coached team,” he said at his Thursday news conference. “We need to prepare the lads as well as we can for what we’re about to face. I’d like to think we’re going into it prepared well, and we’ll see what happens.”
Fulham’s track record against the Big Six would say otherwise as they have lost the previous 11 matches against the evergreens by a combined 32-7 count. The Cottagers have given up at least two goals in each of those meetings, though three of the five defeats at Craven Cottage have been by 2-1 scorelines.
Andre Schurrle is expected to be available for selection after being sidelined nearly a month due to a virus, though it is uncertain if Parker will add him for his first XI at the expense of Floyd Ayite in Fulham’s 4-3-3 formation.
City are unbeaten in 13 (10-3-0) in all competitions versus Fulham, with a pair of League Cup wins bracketing an 11-match unbeaten run in the top flight. In addition to the league win in September, the Citizens recorded a 2-0 victory in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup on a brace by Brahim Diaz on either side of halftime.
Fulham’s last win over Manchester City came in 2009 courtesy a brace by Clint Dempsey. The Cottagers are 0-3-5 at home in Premier League play versus City since a 2-1 victory in 2005 when Steed Malbranque bagged what proved to be the winner right before halftime.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Fulham 0, Manchester City 4.
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(Raheem Sterling photo courtesy Getty Images)