The returning Dimitar Berbatov might have scored Fulham’s winner in the critical relegation six-pointer at Craven Cottage this afternoon – but Rene Meulensteen probably owes West Ham captain Kevin Nolan a debt of gratitude.

Sam Allardyce has already admitted he will be reviewing Nolan’s fitness to lead the Hammers after he was sent off for the second time in a month for inexplicably kicking out at Fernando Amorebieta just before half time. That Allardyce would be willing to the strip the captaincy from a man he has signed for three different clubs indicates the gravity of the offence and his manager offered no defence afterwards, insisting: ‘He’s responsible for us losing the game more than anybody else.’

Allardyce’s opposite number had been vehement in his assertion that Saturday’s six-goal humbling at Hull was an aberration. Fulham’s lax defending early on here suggested otherwise. A combination of Steve Sidwell, Philippe Senderos and Fernando Amorebieta had already allowed one long ball to travel dangerously close to Modibo Maiga before the centre backs failed to cut out Jussi Jääskeläinen’s free-kick and Mohamed Diame, who had sparked Fulham’s feeble collapse at Upton Park in November, smashed a shot past David Stockdale. But for a brilliantly instinctive block by Stockdale when Nolan appeared poised to double the lead at the back post with a downward header, it could have been another long afternoon for the home side.

Meulensteen highlighted Stockdale’s superb save as a turning point. Fulham finally grew accustomed to the wet conditions and began the play the kind of football that has – for the most part – brought encouragement since Jol’s departure. John Arne Riise’s rasping drive flew fractionally wide and the elusive Adel Taarabt also went close, before an impudently flicked volley from Berbatov was well gathered by Jaaskelainen. West Ham’s makeshift defence was creaking, but Maiga cleared an Amorebieta header off line with his goalkeeper beaten.

Fulham’s equaliser finally arrived just after the half hour mark. West Ham were still adjusting after their latest injury setback, with Razvan Rat replacing the injured Mark Noble, and Steve Sidwell climbed highest at the far post to head a Damien Duff corner emphatically into the net. Belief surged through the home ranks. Some delightful interplay between Taarabt and Berbatov saw the Moroccan thump a shot from the edge of the area past Jaaskelainen only to be denied by the inside of the post. Nolan’s moment of madness was the last thing his besieged side needed.

They held back the tide manfully for twenty minutes in the second half. Jaaskelainen pushed a Taarabt header onto the post, Duff lifted a shot fractionally over the crossbar and Berbatov somehow lost his footing instead of finishing from close range, but eventually the pressure told. Substitute Alex Kacaniklic surged into the penalty area, having been found by the impressive Taarabt, and Parker played his cross into the path of an unmarked Berbatov, who had the simplest of finishes from close range at the far post.

Fulham’s victory should have been more comfortable but Darren Bent, who had just replaced an injured Taarabt, failed to make the most of a sublime flick from Berbatov that sent him clean through on goal, shooting straight at Jaaskelainen when it seemed easier to score. Thus, the closing stages were tense as an anxious Fulham side drifted deeper and deeper seeking to protect their lead. Even the introduction of Carlton Cole, who has scored seven Premier League goals in nine appearances against the Cottagers, couldn’t breach their defence for a second time.

The relief was tangible at the final whistle. Meulensteen, who spoke of the importance of making the home games matter in the final months of the season, punched the air in delight as he applauded the Hammersmith End afterwards. This vital victory lifted Fulham up to sixteenth in what remains a terribly congested bottom half, with their next home game equally important against rock-b0ttom Sunderland. ‘It doesn’t mean that we’ve turned the corner,’ said Meulensteen, ‘but it’s a really good follow-up to the trend that we’re creating here.’

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Riether, Riise, Senderos, Amorebieta; Sidwell, Parker; Duff (Kasami 78), Richardson (Kacaniklic 56), Taarabt (Bent 69). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Hughes, Dejagah, Dembele.

BOOKED: Amorebieta, Berbatov.

GOALS: Sidwell (32), Berbatov (66).

WEST HAM UNITED (3-5-1-1): Jaaskelainen; McCartney, Diarra, O’Brien; Demel, Noble (Rat 32), Diame (Downing 56), Collison, Taylor; Nolan; Maiga (C. Cole 69). Subs (not used): Adrian, Potts, Jarvis, J. Cole.

BOOKED: Demel, Rat.

SENT OFF: Nolan (44).

GOAL: Diame (7).