After all the angst over Bobby Zamora’s deadline day move, it appears Martin Jol might have found a ready-made replacement. Though we should dangle the caveat that first impressions often prove misleading, it’s hard not to enthuse about Pavel Pogrebnyak’s first outing in English football. The beanpole Russian, who appeared to bleach his blond hair especially for the occasion, was far from overawed by the physical nature of his first opponents – taking the rough and tumble that comes with a game against Stoke City fairly phlegmatically. The manner in which Pogrebnyak, who fell out of the habit of finding the net regularly whilst in Stuttgart, rifled home the opening goal from the edge of the box was most impressive, as was his mobility and hold-up play, which has the potential to rival his immediate predecessor.
It was certainly telling that Pogrebnyak’s premature departure, caused at least in part by a late tackle from behind on the halfway line, prompted a change in the game’s pattern. It was fortunate for Fulham that they had, by that time, already established a commanding line. Gone was the confident, possession-drenched football of the first period, which eventually delivered two well-worked goals prior to the interval. Pogrebnyak caught the eye, eagerly wrestling with Ryan Shawcross, and it was no surprise when he gave Jol’s side a lead which their early enterprise merited, pouncing on a forward raid from John Arne Riise to rifle high in the net from 15 yards.
Fulham found space and fluency in equal measure as Stoke seemed slow to adjust to the task, perhaps their minds on the mouth-watering visit of Valencia in the Europa League this week. Clint Dempsey floated into oceans of room twelve minutes later and the American was almost encouraged to have a crack from the best part of thirty yards. The visitors appeared to have got away with it when Thomas Sorensen turned Dempsey’s shot onto the crossbar, but their luck was out: the ball was soon back in the net, having cannoned off the goalkeeper’s back and dribbled over the line.
A stern talking to at half-time from Pulis seemed to set his players right. Stoke emerged reinvigorated and a treble change shortly after Pogrebnyak’s own withdrawal increased their attacking threat. Shawcross sauntered untracked towards the near post at a Jermaine Pennant corner to flick a header across Mark Schwarzer and into the far corner, offering the visitors a lifeline. They might have completed the comeback had Peter Crouch kept his composure when Fuller’s flick presented him with a glorious opportunity from a Pennant free-kick, but the former QPR striker lofted a shot awkwardly over the bar from seven yards out.
Instead, it was Fulham who came closest to adding another goal as time ticked away. Dempsey, who tired as he was asked to fulfil the lone striker’s role for the last quarter of the game, somehow beat Shawcross and Matthew Upson to a punt forward and bore down on Sorensen. He did all the hard work, but the American was denied a seventeenth goal of the season by the near post. The pain seemed too much for the Texan to bear as he struggled to haul himself up from the turf, even after Chris Foy had made his miss academic by blowing the final whistle, but it would have felt a lot worse had Stoke’s second half revival resulted in two dropped points.
FULHAM (4-1-4-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy (Etuhu 80); Dembele, Dempsey, Duff, Ruiz (Baird 89); Pogrebnyak (Davies 62). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Gecov, Frei, Trotta.
GOALS: Pogrebnyak (16), Sorensen (o.g. 28).
STOKE CITY (4-3-3): Sorensen; Wilkinson (Shotton 68), Wilson, Shawcross, Upson; Palacios, Whelan, Etherington (Pennant 67); Jones (Fuller 66), Crouch, Walters. Subs (not used): Begovic, Woodgate, Whitehead, Jerome.
BOOKED: Palacios, Wilson.
GOAL: Shawcross (78).
REFEREE: Chris Foy (Lancashire).