A timely late finish from Darren Bent eased the pressure on Martin Jol as Fulham sneaked past Stoke and secured their first league victory at Craven Cottage since April Fool’s Day.
Bent, a second-half susbtitute for the injured Dimitar Berbatov, cleverly cut inside the diving Robert Huth and around grounded goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, before finding the roof of the net from close range. It was a win that Fulham scarcely deserved, as Stoke saw plenty of the ball and passed up several presentable chances, but given their wretched start to the season and the opprobrium that has rained down on a beleaguered Jol in recent weeks, the three points were certainly welcome. The relief was tangible at the final whistle – and the closing stages were played out to sound of Jol’s predecessor, Mark Hughes, being taunted by the home fans.
Fulham were fitful for most of the afternoon and Jol’s best made plans were laid to waste by the midway point of the second half. Skipper Brede Hangeland didn’t emerge for the second period and the home side also lost Berbatov, who had endured a frustrating afternoon, after he come off worst following a tussle with Ryan Shawcross. Jol had already opted to change his system after the last-gasp home defeat by newly-promoted Cardiff City last weekend, dropping Bent and playing the Bulgarian as a lone striker, with Philippe Senderos coming in to bolster Fulham’s fragile defence. Fernando Amorebieta started at left back but had little opportunity to get forward and was perhaps fortunate not to have conceded a first-half penalty, with referee Roger East ruling that his pull-back on Jon Walters occurred outside the penalty area.
Hughes was incensed with that decision and believed his side should also have had a penalty after Stephen Ireland went to ground following a challenge by Senderos near to the byline, although replays suggested that any contact was minimal. What wasn’t in doubt was that the visitors had the better of the first period. Sascha Riether reacted well to nod away a Huth header from underneath his own crossbar after the German was left unattended at a corner and Stoke, with Steven N’Zonzi to the fore, dictated the pace of the game. Marko Arnautovíc skewed the game’s first chance hopelessly wide after a free-kick was only cleared to the edge of the box, but Stoke played the much more progressive football.
Fulham’s best two chances fell to Steve Sidwell, who was well below par in central midfield, and his decision to shoot high over the bar from range particularly animated Berbatov, who felt he should have received a pass, and the midfielder then headed against the top of the bar from Pajtim Kasami’s dinked cross had picked him out at the back post. The closest the home side came to a breakthrough was on the stroke of half time when Bryan Ruiz appeared to be felled in the box by Marc Wilson, but once again East waved play on.
Jol’s half-time team talk produced an increased tempo out of the home side, but they still played most of their football in front of a stubborn Stoke. The Potters play far more football under Hughes that they did under Tony Pulis – and there were times this afternoon when you felt the direct approach would have proved more profitable. Huth should have done better than send a free header over from the bar from six yards out at a corner and David Stockdale smothered a snapshot from substitute Oussama Assaidi shortly after the Liverpool loanee had been introduced. Geoff Cameron, who got forward to good effect from right back, saw his speculative drive deflected agonisingly wide and, from the subsequent corner, Huth headed inches over once again.
Stoke’s profligacy would eventually cost them, but not before Sascha Riether intervened at both ends. First, he scrambled another Huth header away from the goal-line and then, as space opened up in front of him after he broke up a Stoke attack, rampaged forward from right back. The German international, who seems a steal at just £1.3m after his successful loan from Cologne last season, run fully eighty yards with the ball before Asmir Begovic dived full length to make his first save of the afternoon. Bent stood unimpressed with his arms outstretched, expecting a pull-back at the far post, but he didn’t have long to wait to make a decisive impact.
It was fitting that the winning goal owed much to the industry of Kasami, who was Fulham’s most willing runner all afternoon. His ambitious shot from the right angle of the box deflected into Bent’s path and the England international needed no second invitation, skipping around both Huth and Begovic, to slot home. The on-loan Aston Villa striker ironically passed up an easier chance in stoppage time when he opted for an extra touch as he bore down on Begovic, but the late miss proved academic.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Riether, Amorebieta, Senderos, Hangeland (Richardson 45); Karagounis (Boateng 60), Sidwell; Kasami, Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov (Bent 65). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Zverotic, Taraabt, Rodallega.
BOOKED: Amorebieta, Senderos.
GOAL: Bent (83).
STOKE CITY (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Cameron, Pieters, Huth, Shawcross; N’Zonzi, Wilson (Whelan 59); Arnautovic, Etherington (Assaidi 63), Ireland; Walters (Crouch 84). Subs (not used): Sorensen, Palacios, Adam, Jones.
BOOKED: Wilson, Walters.
REFEREE: Roger East (Wiltshire).