If Manchester City were feeling at all sluggish after the mid-season break, the frantic start to Saturday’s 4-1 FA Cup fourth-round win against Fulham certainly blew away the cobwebs.
Liverpool target Fabio Carvalho possibly gave us a glimpse of future title races when he stole in to convert Harry Wilson’s fourth-minute cross.
An outside-of-the-foot pass from Joao Cancelo, a penetrating dribble from Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez cutting onto his trusty left foot and Ilkay Gundogan arriving into the box to finish coolly were all very familiar elements as the Blues found a swift response .
But, even as John Stones again highlighted City’s under-rated strength from set-pieces by heading home Kevin De Bruyne’s left-wing corner, thoughts of the unfamiliar – both unfolding and still to come – continued to occupy the mind.
Fulham have rattled in an incredible 79 goals so far this season to sit top of the Championship and they played with the intent you would expect from such a team in a cup tie with nothing to lose.
The half-time statistics bore out a contest that looked unlike most of those that unfolded at the Etihad Stadium. According to Opta, the game’s action areas were very even, with 27.2 per cent of the match taking place in City’s defensive third – shaded only slightly by 30.3% in the business end of Fulham territory.
Before Riyad Mahrez pulled them clear early in the second half, City were getting put through an unusual amount of work before and it felt like Pep Guardiola might have missed a trick with his defensive selection.
Kyle Walker will sit out both legs of the Champions League meeting with Sporting Lisbon on account of his rush of blood in Leipzig, with the first leg of the last-16 encounter taking place in the Portuguese capital 10 days from now.
Tackling a high-pressure fixture without Walker’s experience, big-game temperament and incomparable recovery pace will be a significant challenge for City and it was a surprise that Guardiola selected the England man against Fulham instead of road-testing his Lisbon back four.
His decision to play Nathan Ake might have hinted at the Dutchman being ahead of Oleksandr Zinchenko in the pecking order to play at left-back against Sporting, with Cancelo almost certain to revert to the right-hand side in Walker’s absence.
Cancelo’s shifts into midfield mean the City backline often fans out into a three and Ake would find himself on the left of this if he plays on February 15.
Fulham’s high-octane efforts before the break meant City were not allowed to play with the rhythm that lefts I cancel gracefully move between positions. They were generally bolted into a back four, from which Ake’s needless charge from the defensive line led to the opener.
He and Stones had other shaky moments, while Walker strangely remained on the field when Zinchenko was introduced at 4-1.
Guardiola will fairly point out that no two games are the same. Sporting’s 3-4-3 will likely present a very different challenge to Fulham. On the other hand, Brentford can be expected to cede possession when they visit east Manchester this midweek and not pose questions with the frequency their west London neighbors did.
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This might feel like straining for a problem in the midst of an enjoyable FA Cup win the day after the Old Trafford bin fire was treated to another bucket of petrol.
However, without Walker on a big European night, City’s defense will be out of their comfort zone. His 82nd-minute intervention to deny the lurking Carvalho underlined how he gives the Blues defense insurance that no one else does. In his absence from him, they will have to find another way.
Guardiola will undoubtedly already have a plan regarding how he wants to approach things at Estadio Jose Alvalade. It would be a shame if his chosen back four went in undercooked.
Who do you think should be City’s starting back four in Lisbon? Follow City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.