Man City 1 Fulham 3
Mark Hughes’ bold decision to leave Robinho on the bench backfired as Manchester City were humbled in front of their furious fans by Fulham.
Instead of City applying pressure to West Ham for the final European slot, a second-half double from Clint Dempsey either side of a Dickson Etuhu effort against his old club mean Fulham are now pressing for seventh spot.
City must now attempt to overcome a first-leg deficit against Hamburg on Thursday to reach the UEFA Cup semi-finals and salvage their season.
No-one is suggesting the Blues might go down but the brutal truth is they are just eight points above second-bottom Middlesbrough after a season that promised so much but is turning into one of deep depression.
The vast sums spent on Hughes’ squad are not looking like value for money, with the £32.5million lavished on Robinho a major piece of poor judgement.
In recent weeks, Hughes has given the impression of being totally fed up of talking about the Brazilian.
A regular topic of conversation has been the South American’s recent dismal performances, most of which have come away from Eastlands.
Hughes has consistently defended Robinho, even after Thursday night’s defeat. But with no goals at all in 2009, it can hardly be argued the former Real Madrid star is justifying his British record transfer fee.
It is fair to say Robinho’s first season in English football has been a pretty arduous one – he had a trip to South America for World Cup duty before returning to face Arsenal and Hamburg – and a bit of time on the bench was perhaps not overdue.
Still, it was something of a shock when Hughes turned to Ched Evans as a replacement for Valeri Bojinov once Fulham had levelled.
The City supporters were not happy with that turn of events with a minority chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing”.
Robinho was presumably not the only person in Ireland’s sights when he branded his team-mates as not being brave enough in Germany.
By far the Blues’ most consistent performer this season, the young midfielder is one player beyond criticism.
But he needed to back up his bold statement with actions. And, thanks to Fulham’s lacklustre defence, he duly obliged.
There was no immediate danger when Bojinov, asked to play a lone role in attack, flicked a pass to Ireland on halfway.
The visitors fatally decided to stand off, not even making a tackle as the City midfield man reached the penalty area.
Having got so far, Ireland decided to try his luck. And, profiting from a deflection off John Pantsil, he beat Mark Schwarzer with a dipping effort.
In truth it was just about the only noteworthy effort of the opening 45 minutes of a match that pitched Nigeria-born brothers Dickson and Kelvin Etuhu against each other.
Martin Petrov sporadically sprang into life on his first Premier League start since August but there was very little purpose on either side, which was a surprise considering West Ham’s defeat yesterday had once again opened the door to a European slot.
Shay Given was called upon just once, when Bobby Zamora wriggled free of Richard Dunne and let fly with a shot on the turn that he was equal to.
It was a poor return from Fulham, who in the corresponding fixture last season had begun what turned out to be a miraculous escape from relegation when they came back from two goals down to record a priceless victory.
But, just as they did 12 months ago, Roy Hodgson’s men overcame a dismal interval position to get their noses in front.
This time it only took 14 minutes to complete the turnaround.
First, after being gifted possession by Pablo Zabaleta, Dempsey latched onto the loose ball when Micah Richards had jumped in to tackle Zamora and expertly curled home.
Then, when City’s wobbling defence failed to cut out the danger presented by Dempsey and the overlapping Paul Konchesky from the left, Etuhu rifled into the corner against his former club from 20 yards.
Robinho’s introduction, along with that of Daniel Sturridge, followed shortly afterwards, to rapturous applause.
Not that it made much difference as Fulham continued to look more threatening.
Brede Hangeland wasted a glorious chance to wrap up the points after Given had punched Dempsey’s curling free-kick into Zamora.
But another goal arrived seven minutes from time when City were caught on the counter-attack and Dempsey bagged his second from Zamora’s square pass.