Manuel Pellegrini couldn’t have asked for much more ahead of Manchester City’s crucial derby against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Tuesday. This was as comfortable a win as you’re likely to get in what is an ultracompetitive Premier League, as City scored five without reply against a Fulham side dangerously close to being relegated.
Yaya Toure, who captained City in the absence of suspended Vincent Kompany, scored three goals, capping off an all-round performance that makes a mockery of his critics. Often cast as lazy and inconsistent, his hat-trick took his tally to 16 in the league this season and 20 in all competitions—a remarkable return for a central midfielder.
He scored two penalties after fouls by Fernando Amorebieta, the first on Alvaro Negredo and the second on David Silva, with the Venezuelan defender sent off after being booked for both. Toure then added a wonderful third, a 25-yard curling effort that flew inches inside the post.
With City in the ascendancy and with a numerical advantage, their quality really began to tell, and the free-flowing attacking football that defined the first half of their season was in evidence once again.
Fernandinho, who has arguably been City's best player this season after his big-money move from Shakhtar Donetsk last summer, scored City's fourth with a rasping shot into the top corner, and the much-maligned Martin Demichelis tapped in the fifth with moments of the match remaining.
With City so comfortably in charge of the game, they managed to take Samir Nasri, Silva and Toure off to rest them ahead of Tuesday night's away match against United. It's a derby of huge importance to City, who know if they win their three games in hand over Chelsea, they'll move three points clear of their West London counterparts.
Stevan Jovetic was given a 10-minute run-out as he returned from a hamstring injury, with his involvement potentially vital in City's run-in. The Montenegrin offers his side something different from the other forwards at the club, with an ability to drop deep and pick up the ball between the lines an asset to City's attack.
Keeping him fit, though, remains a concern after a series of muscular injuries have blighted his debut season in England.
And after a sharp downturn in form, Negredo contributed to this victory with a much-improved performance. He may not have scored—missing a sitter toward the end that would have done him the world of good—but his link-up play and ability to lead the line and bring City's talented midfielders into play was on show once more.
While so many of Europe's other top leagues are bereft of competitiveness, this Premier League season is one of the most exciting in years. City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all have a realistic chance of winning the title. The room for error is incredibly small, and with City facing some tough away fixtures, they must be at their consistent best for the remainder of the season.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard.