After all the needle between these two sides already this season, there was bound to be a bit of an atmosphere at Craven Cottage. The Stoke supporters, packed into a corner of the Putney End, set the tone by reminding Danny Murphy that they hadn’t forgotten his incendiary comments about their style of play, but the boos only inspired the Fulham captain to deliver his best performance of a patchy season. Perhaps it would have been fitting for Murphy to slot the second half spot-kick that made the points safe, but Clint Dempsey persuaded his skipper to stand aside so he could double his tally for the afternoon.
The home side, looking transformed since their dire festive season displays at the Cottage, were comfortable winners by full time but Stoke started brightly. Their up and ’em style almost produced a perfect start. A deep Matthew Etherington set-piece found Ryan Shawcross free at the far post and the Stoke captain should have guided his header inside the post rather than wastefully wide. Gradually, Fulham began to play the snappy, one-touch football that typified a surprise away win at the Britannia less than a month ago, and Damien Duff sounded a warning when he flew past Rory Delap and drove a shot against the crossbar after cutting in from the right.
Stoke, briefly dazed by a concerted spell of Fulham pressure, might have taken the lead midway through the first period when Kenwyne Jones lashed a shot against the post after the hosts failed to clear a Dean Whitehead free-kick. Tony Pulis threw his hands skywards and Stoke were made to pay for their prolifigacy. Just as they looked ready to dictate the tempo of contest, they fell behind to a swift counter-attack. Duff rolled a ball down the right side of the box and Andy Johnson, a constant threat on his 150th Premier League appearance, dribbled past Shawcross on his way to the byline and his cutback found a sliding Dempsey arriving ahead of Andy Wilkinson at the near post.
Fulham successfully nullified the threat of an irritated Tuncay and Jones and took full control of the contest ten minutes after the break. Murphy’s fine floated through ball released Dempsey, who darted away from Shawcross and looked to have beaten Shawcross with a deft touch inside the box. The American was wrestled to the ground by a desperate Stoke captain, who was dismissed, and whatever Pulis reckons, there could be little doubt about the decision. Dempsey won his argument with Murphy and rifled home the penalty confidently.
Pulis quickly introduced John Carew and the on-loan striker might have made an immediate impact had he not inexplicably dallied inside the Fulham box having got past three white shirts. As it was, Fulham looked the more likely to add to their account. Johnson was denied a Fulham third by a smart save from Asmir Begovic after he had controlled a searching pass from Aaron Hughes and turned away from his marker in one movement, but such was Fulham’s dominance, that the miss was merely academic.
On his return from injury, Moussa Dembele’s clever runs had troubled Stoke all afternoon and Duff, on this form, looks more like the player Roy Hodgson had signed to such great effect from Newcastle last year. There was time for Steve Sidwell’s debut from the substitutes bench, in place of a limping Dickson Etuhu, but the midfielder was denied a dream start when his deflected drive flew just wide. The addition of a new centre forward, which Hughes still regards as important, would put the seal on a pretty successful January.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Stockdale; Pantsil, Baird, Hughes (Halliche 75), Hangeland; Etuhu (Sidwell 62), Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Dembele (Gera 75), A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Salcido, Davies, Kamara.
GOALS: Dempsey (33, pen 56).
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic; Collins (Carew 58), Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth; Wilson, Whitehead, Delap, Etherington (Whelan 63); Tuncay (Faye 58), Jones. Subs (not used): Sorensen, Pennant, Fuller, Walters.
SENT OFF: Shawcross.
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).