Pep Guardiola called on Manchester City’s defenders to keep up a defensive mean streak as his side moved into the Premier League top four for the first time this season with a 2-0 win over Fulham.
Raheem Sterling’s first goal in seven games and a Kevin De Bruyne penalty inside the first 26 minutes ensured a comfortable afternoon for Guardiola’s men on Saturday as they recorded back-to-back wins in the league for the first time this season.
After a difficult start to the campaign caused by injuries, coronavirus cases and a short pre-season, City are edging back into title contention as they now trail leaders Tottenham and Liverpool by just three points.
“This season looks like there will be a lot of teams in contention. Everyone can beat everyone. In this month it was important to get qualification for the Champions League, now we focus on the Premier League. It will be a long season,” said Guardiola.
“We struggled at the beginning of the season for many reasons. Now four games, four clean sheets. It’s so important for us to maintain this solidity.
“It’s important that we won and that defenders don’t make mistakes and we don’t gift goals.”
Sterling had not scored in the league for nearly two months and been left out by Guardiola in recent weeks.
But the England international looked more like his old self to provide some much-needed penetration in behind for a City side that has struggled to score goals this season.
Sterling should have opened the scoring inside three minutes when he fired too close to Alphonse Areola after Riyad Mahrez’s pass opened up the Fulham defence.
Less than two minutes later, Sterling got a second chance from another sumptuous De Bruyne assist and this time made no mistake on his favoured right foot.
Sterling then helped create the second as he turned Joachim Andersen inside the box and went down under the faintest contact from the Danish defender for a penalty.
De Bruyne had missed his last spot-kick against Liverpool, but confidently strode forward to send Areola the wrong way.
John Stones is enjoying a renaissance at the heart of Guardiola’s defence as he was again preferred to Aymeric Laporte alongside Ruben Dias.
However, it was a mix-up between Stones and Ederson that came closest to providing Fulham a lifeline as the goalkeeper came rushing off his line to clear as Stones played the ball back towards his own goal and was relieved to see it roll wide for a corner.
“We need to keep this streak going, keep these clean sheets going too,” said Stones. “I think every game we play in we could always score more. I’m sure the strikers will be frustrated, but it’s just good to get the three points.”
After scoring just 10 goals in their first eight league games of the season, City clicked into gear last weekend in a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley.
Had De Bruyne been more clinical, the hosts could have had another handful.
The Belgian turned Gabriel Jesus’s pass onto the crossbar then could not beat Areola when one-on-one after a brilliant through ball from Mahrez set him clear.
Mahrez was the creator again with a well-worked corner for De Bruyne’s next effort which flew well over the bar.
But two goals were more than enough as City recorded a fourth consecutive clean sheet.
At the other end of the table, Fulham remain just a point clear of the relegation zone in 17th.