Mark Hughes has grudgingly conceded Manchester City are contenders to win the Premier League this season but only if Roberto Mancini casts off his conservative instincts and adopts the attacking tactics that swept aside Fulham today.
City's most resounding success to date came at the expense of their former manager here with a scintillating 4-1 win to take them within three points of Chelsea and Manchester United at the top of the division. Scoreless displays in their last two matches, against United and Birmingham City, had intensified criticisms of Mancini, given the resources at his disposal, and this victory injected much-needed momentum into their title challenge.
Hughes, who was sacked at Eastlands last December with an identical record in points accrued as Mancini has now at the same stage, could not resist a mention of the Italian's perceived negative outlook. "On their performance today certainly they're contenders," said Hughes. "They were excellent. If they have belief and there's some forward thinking, and maybe they're a bit more attack-minded as they were today on more occasions, there's no reason why they shouldn't be. They've got as good a chance as anybody."
City arrived in south-west London having managed 15 goals in 13 league games and Gareth Barry and Pablo Zabaleta, whose stunning second goal had extended the visitors' lead, admitted afterwards that this was City's best performance to date. "The confidence was the difference," said Zabaleta. "We had a difficult week after two draws but we want to fight for something this season. That was the best we have played this season."
Mancini, in contrast, was more inclined to point to displays against Sunderland and Birmingham that had ultimately gone unrewarded. "Our best performance was the second half against Birmingham [0-0], and the first half against Sunderland [eventually lost 0-1]," he said. "But this is football. Last week I was a 'stupid' manager who was six points behind the leaders. Now I am the 'best' manager because I'm only three points off the top of the league. If you win, you're considered to be the top. If you lose, you're stupid. I know what happens. I played football for 20 years and I've been a manager for 10, so I know the way it works.
"Let's check at the end of the season. But I have always thought I was the 'best' manager. In my career, where I've stayed [at clubs], I've won. Now we must continue to work and improve every game, every day. Only that way can we achieve. If people think we're having big problems, a big crisis, when we are only three points behind United and Chelsea, then we're doing well."
Mancini had his name sung by the away supporters at the final whistle, with his opposite number left to digest the boos to which his own team had departed at the interval when Fulham were 3-0 down.
"I can understand that reaction because that was our worst performance since I came here and that's the real disappointment," said Hughes.
"We allowed good players too much time and space and we can't afford to do that. The game was over by half-time. We never gave ourselves any kind of platform to build on and City took the wind out of our sails early. We lost a bit of belief after that, became passive and conceded ground. We're better than we showed today but I'd suggest that was their best performance of the season so far. We came up against them on a good day."