A rather dreary game seemed destined for a scorless draw at the Cottage last night until Matthew Etherington, who seems to greatly enjoy playing against Fulham, stepped up to score a smart-taken winner and propel Stoke above the Whites and into the top half of the table.
The defeat might prove more costly for Roy Hodgson than the loss of a league place and three points too. The Fulham manager fielded a rather strong side considering that we were a week away from a European final and had to substitute Damien Duff at half-time. The Irish winger has a calf strain and is now rated as a doubt for the trip to Hamburg to play Atletico Madrid next week.
Shots on target were at a premium throughout. Fulham tried to play the more fluid football but Stoke, anxious to avoid another hammering in these parts having been hit for seven not so long ago at Chelsea, were disciplined in defence and exceptionally difficult to break down. That’s a credit to the managerial acumen of Tony Pulis and they restricted Hodgson’s side to just a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes. A nice move involving Clint Dempsey, playing as a centre forward in the continued absence of Bobby Zamora, and Simon Davies finished with a Zoltan Gera snapshot from 20 yards flying into the arms of Asmir Begovic.
Gera continued to prove a real threat to the Stoke goal. He collected a short pass from Duff and drove a shot narrowly over the crossbar and then created a chance for Dempsey almost out of nothing only for an excellent intervention by Robert Huth to deny the American an opportunity to get his shot away.
The visitors started the second half the brighter. Though they played plenty more football than their reputation as long-ball merchants might suggest, Stoke’s first chance came courtesy of a Rory Delap long throw. Fulham dealt with the aerial bombardment pretty well all evening but this time they allowed Ricardo Fuller to find some space in the box and he headed narrowly wide.
Fulham responded with a rather vigorous riposte. Gera’s terrific reverse ball looked to have freed Dempsey at the back post but the American, sliding in to finish, was thwarted by a terrific reaction save from Begovic. The former Portsmouth goalkeeper threw himself to his left to turn the ball away for a corner, which was particularly impressive as Dempsey was less than six yards out. The American international tried his luck twice from long range but was off target on both ocassions.
The winner arrived with seven minutes to play. Fuller ventured down the right and, encouraged by an untimely slip from Paul Konchesky, crossed for Etherington, who underlined his status as Stoke’s player of the season, by firing high into the roof of the net. Pulis was understandably delighted afterwards as Stoke took another step towards their highest league finish for 35 years.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Okaka 86), Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff (Nevland 45), Davies; Gera; Dempsey. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Baird, Dikgacoi, Riise.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic; Higginbotham, Wilkinson, Huth, Shawcross; Whelan, Whitehead, Delap, Etherington (Diao 88); Fuller (Lawrence 90), Sidibie (Tuncay 71). Subs (not used): Simonsen, Collins, Pugh, Moult.
BOOKED: Shawcross, Fuller, Huth.
GOAL: Etherington (83).
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Liverpool).