As if anybody needed reminding, in the space of fifteen first-half minutes, Clint Dempsey reiterated just how valuable he remains to Fulham as his timely brace placed a sizeable dent in Bolton’s bid for Premier League survival. With his ninth top flight brace, Dempsey rewarded an enterprising away performance with a comfortable lead at the break, which they added to courtesy of Mahamadou Diarra’s late sliding finish, which was the Mali midfielder’s first goal for the club.
Martin Jol’s major consideration come the summer will be how to hang onto the Texan. His Reebok Stadium double took the 29 year-old to 21 goals in another outstanding season and also carried Dempsey past Louis Saha’s fourteen Premier League strikes in 2003/04, which represented the previous best by a Fulham player in the top flight. The Fulham manager remains confident that he can persuade the American that his future will be best served by signing a new contract at Craven Cottage, although it would be a major surprise if there weren’t serious suitors during the close season.
Dempsey’s opening goal was a belting free-kick from fully 30 yards that flew into the top corner, as its blistering pace surprised the otherwise excellent Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal. Dempsey, who had confidently ushered away both Bryan Ruiz and John Arne Riise from the ball after former Fulham midfielder Darren Pratley had upended Diarra, had already offered Bolton a warning by turning a deflected Damien Duff shot into the bottom corner – only for the celebrations to be cut short by the offside flag.
Fulham’s fluid football seemed largely undisturbed by the absence of Pavel Pogrebnyak, who had failed a pre-match fitness test after injuring his foot against Norwich last weekend. Dempsey slotted in majestically up front – as he has done many times before – whilst Duff was a constant menace on the right, running the hapless Marcos Alonso ragged. There was also an impressive full debut for Alex Kacaniklic, who continued where he left off last week, and Bryan Ruiz offered another encouraging performance from a more central position.
The visitors more than merited their strong half-time lead, which arrived courtesy of a clever break. Duff wriggled away from Alonso down the Fulham right and, after inching to the by-line, drifted over a cross that Dempsey emphatically headed home from five yards. That seemed to end the contest, given that Owen Coyle’s decision make only one change (Pratley in for Klasnic) meant no member of the Bolton starting eleven had mustered more than three league goals all season. They had been spasmodic in the first half at best, restricted to long-range efforts from Martin Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker, which were comfortably fielded by Mark Schwarzer.
Even after Coyle had introduced both Kevin Davies and Chris Eagles as half-time substitutes, Fulham looked the more likely to add to their advantage. Duff, fully deserving of a goal to reflect another excellent display, was twice denied by two terrific reaction stops from Bogdan and – after a clever interchange with Kacaniklic – Dempsey wasted a glorious chance to wrap up his hat-trick when he scuffed his shot wide from the inside left position.
Bolton did at least create more openings in the final third in the second half, but it was scant consolation for Coyle ahead of Monday’s big test against in-form Newcastle. Eagles curled a free-kick just wide moments after his introduction and then saw a shot from the edge the box blocked before both Petrov and Davies spurned decent half chances. The home side’s desperation for a route back into the game showed when the quiet David Ngog fell to ground in the area, with referee Mike Dean sharing Riise’s insistence that he had won the ball.
The visitors’ superiority was underlined by their third goal, created by the rampaging Riise who seemed to have the freedom of Lancashire as he galloped down the left to cross for Diarra to finish on the stretch. The only blot on Fulham’s copybook for the afternoon was a late injury to Ruiz, who might now miss the derby against Chelsea on Easter Monday.
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-5-1): Bogdan; Ricketts, Alonso, Ream, Wheater; Reo-Coker, M. Davies, Pratley (K. Davies 45), Miyaichi (Eagles 45), Petrov; Ngog (Klasnic 60). Subs (not used): Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Knight, Sordell.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Dembele; Duff (Frei 88), Ruiz (Etuhu 73), Kacaniklic (Trotta 88); Dempsey. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Baird, Senderos, S. Davies.
GOALS: Dempsey (30, 45), Diarra (80).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).