Two headed goals from Stoke ended Fulham’s hope at an improved League Cup run, in a match overshadowed by a potentially serious injury to another striker. The evening started well; the sun was shining, there was no traffic and the stewards were friendly, but a frustrating display by Fulham and the sight of impressive new signing, Mousa Dembele, being stretchered off to the dressing room meant a sombre journey back to SW6.
There was an early indication of what was in store as Etherington fouled Dembele and then remonstrated with Captain Danny Murphy, earning yellow cards for both. The game started with Fulham adopting some quite defensive tactics and rarely venturing out of their own half. Stoke seized the opportunity to take control of the game and despite some early missed chances, eventually capitalised on Fulham conceding a corner which Higginbotham headed past Mark Schwarzer. That seemed to be all the motivation Fulham needed and suddenly they were moving forward, with Dempsey, Gera and new defender Salcido threatening to equalise.
No prizes for guessing the kind of message Mark Hughes delivered at half-time but, as we’ve seen before, the boys in white came back out fighting. Begovic’s goal had an impenetrable forcefield and shots by Dempsey, Dembele, Salcido and substitute Eddie Johnson flew over or wide. The game was all but over after 73 minutes as Stoke substitute Rory Delap delivered one of his infamous throw-ins into the box which needed only a tap from the head of Kenwyne Jones to get it past Schwarzer.
A few more attempts from an obviously tiring Fulham side weren’t enough to spare any blushes and as the fourth official signalled a minimum of 3 minutes additional time, the Fulham fans were frustrated. Not as much as they were 2 minutes later as Mousa Dembele was brought down by a late and reckless challenge by Adam Wilkinson. The injury looked severe as Dembele was given oxygen on the pitch and then being carried off the pitch on a stretcher, leaving Fulham fans and staff alike worrying that it was a second broken leg in 10 days.
The defeat means that, for the sixth consecutive season, Fulham fail to progress past the third round of the League Cup.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic, Higginbotham, Huth, Shawcross, Wilkinson, Whelan, Diao (Delap 68), Tuncay (Pugh 83), Etherington, Jones, Fuller (Walters 75) Subs (not used): Sorensen, Soares, Tonge, Gudjohnsen.
BOOKED: Etherington, Wilkinson
GOAL: Higginbotham (23), Jones (79)
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly (Halliche 83), Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Gera, Murphy, Etuhu, Davies (E Johnson 57), Dempsey, Dembele (Greening 90+5) Subs (not used):Etheridge, Pantsil, Baird, Riise.
REFEREE: Mark Halsey