By Jay Jaffa
On Saturday at a sun-drenched Craven Cottage, Edin Dzeko was given just four minutes to make a difference in a game Manchester City had to win following Roberto Mancini's declaration that his team “will win the title” and took his once chance with the assurance of a man in form. His reaction saw him briefly acknowledge the away fans before curving his celebratory run in the direction of his manager.
Whether this was an “I told you so,” is neither here nor there, the Sarajevo-born hit-man had delivered a deserved three points on a silver platter for the Premier League champions.
They say the second year is the hardest and for City's title defence, this is proving the case, but while Mancini's strikers flit between form and function, Dzeko highlighted his worth to his manager in the briefest of cameos.
Only 12 months ago, Dzeko was wowing Premier League audiences with his quadruple at Tottenham - twice as many as he managed in his first six months in England - as he went on to knock goals in at a rate of one every two games, contributing to the club's crowning moment last May.
Yet, his stock fell over the summer period - as much down to the redemption of Carlos Tevez as it was his own doing, as he stumbled to the finish line with one paltry goal in 11 games. At 26, he still has his best years ahead of him but summer rumours suggested that could lie elsewhere. He was linked with a summer move to Juventus following a period that saw his star wane in the blue side of Manchester amid dissenting voices suggesting, among other concerns, that his first touch was not at the level required.
But he is one star of many and the £27 million man has had to adjust his game dramatically since moving from the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Where at Wolfsburg he could rely on a regular partnership with the Brazilian striker Grafite and service from compatriot Zvjezdan Misimovic and largely act as a finisher, at City Dzeko has been asked to be more involved on the floor, in the build-up and in the creation of chances.
The Bosnian has only really had a prolonged spell up front in the absence of others but now with everyone fit and available appears to be carving his niche as an impact, Plan B striker.
Dzeko may have only played 489 minutes (180 for Bosnia) but he has scored eight goals for club and country in ten games this season, more than Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli combined. His habit of scoring crucial goals is fast-turning him into a key figure and were it not for the incredible late comeback by Real Madrid, he would be regaled for years as the man whose goal claimed victory at the Bernabeu.
Mancini has kept coy on the difficulty of keeping four strikers happy. Understandably he is reluctant to unsettle Tevez again, and has to juggle the weekly malcontent of Mario Balotelli. His star pupil Sergio Aguero is both too good to drop and too classy to complain, while Dzeko appears happy to show his boss what he can do at any given opportunity. He admitted after the Fulham game that he “wasn't happy” with the situation but if he keeps grabbing the headlines, will it matter?
Though City were thankful for John-Arne Riise's inexplicable attempt at a clearance just prior to Dzeko's match-winner, the goal itself was a microcosm of what had come before and what could now be if the Bosnian is used correctly.
For all City's dominance and David Silva's invention, they found a compact, stubborn Fulham defence able to snuff out any danger. That was until the Bosnian entered play on the 86th minute and drastically changed the threat his team possessed.
No sooner had Dzeko been introduced, than Gael Clichy lofted a cross into the box - the first of the game. The French full-back spent the majority of the second-half in the left-wing position but every cross was low and easily cut out. Suddenly, with Dzeko (and to a lesser extent, Balotelli) on the pitch, he had a target to aim for and it was little surprise that Riise and Co. struggled to adapt to the change in attack.
As a broader point, Mancini's rotation worked well against Fulham, in what was undoubtedly their best performance of the campaign. In a fair and just world, Joe Hart would not have picked the ball out of his net after one of the poorest penalty decisions of the season, and City would have left west London with a clean sheet – their first of the season. Matija Nastasic looks assured beyond his years and Javi Garcia passed with authority.
But the narrative hinges on Dzeko's impact and may well prove to be the turning point in a season yet to truly define the leading contenders. Aside from Chelsea, who secured a big result at Arsenal, giving them a distinct three-point lead at the top, City's rivals have yet to truly show their hands.
And with Dzeko now at the front of the queue, all eyes turn to watch Mancini's next move – City have a gruelling schedule and the Italian will be thankful for his rich collection of strikers but the key will be how he uses them. If Mancini continues to coax the best out of Dzeko the second title he forewarned may not be as tricky as he anticipates.
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