Only Dimitar Berbatov could dispatch a volley as stupendous as the strike that settled this game against Stoke and suggest – in all seriousness – afterwards that it wasn’t all that special. The Bulgarian striker marked his 200th Premier League appearance with a rasping drive after Robert Huth’s attempt to clear Sascha Riether’s cross dropped towards his feet in added time at the end of the first half: an unstoppable shot that flew beyond Asmir Begovic and into the top corner. Such a classical finish belies the languid forward’s lackadaisical demeanour and makes his name one of the first on Martin Jol’s teamsheet. The one moment of true quality in an underwhelming contest, it deserved to be the winner, and edged Fulham towards mid-table respectability.
Jol’s side were also indebted to a second half penalty save from Mark Schwarzer as Stoke came close to leaving Craven Cottage with a scarcely merited point. The 40 year-old goalkeeper guessed correctly and easily smothered a tame spot-kick from Jonathan Walters after referee Lee Probert had harshly adjudged Ashkan Dejagah guilty of handling a Brek Shea shot shortly after half time. Walters’ fallibility from twelve yards capped a miserable day for him against Chelsea recently and his profligacy cost Tony Pulis’ side dear this afternoon, especially as his strike partner Peter Crouch failed to capitalise on a risky back pass from Philippe Senderos as Schwarzer came sprinting off his line.
Fulham’s defending was much improved from the jittery displays that had characterised an alarming winter slump that seen Jol’s side flirt with a relegation scrap after looking every inch the Premier League’s surprise package back in August. This was their second consecutive clean sheet, but they were far more ambitious and inventive in forward areas than they had been at Carrow Road a fortnight ago. The tone was set by the energetic Riether, who enthusiastically rampaged down the right to good effect throughout, who dug out a cross to the near post after clever interplay with the excellent Dejagah. Berbatov did well to fashion a chance for himself, first shielding the ball from two Stoke defenders before guiding a volley just over the bar with his back to goal from six yards out. Damien Duff, making his hundredth league appearance for Fulham, sent over a teasing free kick from the right that was touched in impudently by the hand of Bryan Ruiz at the far post, but the hosts continued to exert pressure on Pulis’ side.
Jol’s side were far keener to shoot from range than in previous weeks – with Steve Sidwell sending two shots scuttling wide from distance – whilst Begovic fielded another attempt by John Arne Riise to break his Fulham duck. Whilst that save was comfortable, the Stoke goalkeeper did superbly to tip Giorgos Karagounis’ swerving free-kick over the crossbar from 20 yards. Stoke offered little in response, with Walters and Crouch playing their part in a rapid break by the visitors, but Schwarzer was alert to the danger and palmed a dangerous cross away to safety.
It was all to easy to see why Stoke had managed just a solitary away win all season and their creativity was severely restricted by the early departure of Etherington due to a back injury. Shea, an American international, showed glimpses of his quality on his Stoke debut, but even despite the introduction of Cameron Jerome as an extra attacker, Fulham had most of the ball and the chances to extend their lead. Berbatov, predictability, came to the fore again, tricking his way past two Stoke defenders and seeing his shot pushed away by Begovic. Karagounis thumped a shot just over the crossbar and Bryan Ruiz cleverly worked a yard of space for Sidwell, whose shot was deflected wide.
Stoke stood firm and eventually poured forward in search of an equaliser. Long throws and a succession of set pieces and corners came and went without much incident, with a glancing header wide from Ryan Shawcross, the closest the visitors came to levelling matters. Fulham carried a threat on the break, through the pace of Dejagah, and had substitute Mladen Petric not lifted a half chance into the Hammersmith End shortly after replacing Berbatov, the home fans might have been spared such an agonising four minutes of stoppage time.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Karagounis (Baird 81), Sidwell; Duff (Emmanuelson 86), Dejagah, Ruiz; Berbatov (Petric 90). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Kacaniklic, Rodallega.
GOAL: Berbatov (45).
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic; Shotton, Wilson, Huth, Shawcross; Whelan, N’Zonzi, Cameron (Jerome 51), Etherington (Shea 26); Crouch (Jones 70), Walters. Subs (not used): Sorensen, Whitehead, Adam, Kightly.
BOOKED: N’Zonzi, Shawcross, Wilson.
REFEREE: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).