This was the archetypal game of two halves. For 45 minutes, Fulham were at their fluent best. They passed their way through a hesitant and jittery Stoke almost at will and should have been far further ahead than the single goal that an in-form Bobby Decordova-Reid snaffled at the far post following some dangerous approach play from Anthony Knockaert. But that dominant Fulham were dormant after the break and, only some poor Stoke finishing, prevented them from paying the price for their lethargy as Michael O’Neill’s men finished by far the stronger.
Scott Parker, perhaps bruised by a crazy Boxing Day draw at Luton Town, opted to praise his side’s defensive fortitude after the final whistle. It had been seven games since the Whites had recorded a clean sheet but they were far from convincing, especially after Alfie Mawson had departed midway through the second period having injured his knee again. The nerves around Craven Cottage were palpable in the final ten minutes when Parker replaced ineffectual captain Tom Cairney with Steven Sessegnon and switched to a back five – something which only invited a sustained aerial bombardment from an emboldened Stoke side.
The Potters might consider themselves unfortunate not to have come away with a point. They forced a succession of late corners and Marek Rodak produced an excellent late save at his post to keep out a volley from James McClean after the former Sunderland winger had latched onto a clever flick-on from substitute Sam Vokes. On another day, one of the loose balls that bounced around in the Fulham box would have fallen kindly for a Stoke forward, but the hosts clung on to three precious points.
Such a nerve-shredding ending didn’t appear likely at all as the home side made all the early running. The recalled Anthony Knockaert started as if he had a point to prove, testing Jack Butland with an early cross-shot from the right, before Josh Onomah underlined his recent improvement from the heart of midfield. His strength and desire took him away from Ryan Shawcross and a lovely disguised pass played in Aleksandar Mitrovic, but the Serbian’s precise shot was beaten away by Butland.
Decordova-Reid and Joe Bryan were dovetailing beautifully along the left flank for Fulham, although the former was booked for a professional foul on Tom Ince as Stoke threatened a counter-attack from a Fulham corner. Fulham continued to play on the front foot and, as Knockaert roamed inside, space opened up for Cyrus Christie. The Republic of Ireland international enjoyed a fruitful afternoon at right back and sent over a delicious cross that Mitrovic should have converted instead of planting a free header over the bar from close range.
The chances were mounting up for Fulham and they soon went in front. Another period of probing in front of the Stoke defence culminated with Knockaert finding more space on the right and, although Butland was able to parry the French winger’s low cross, Decordova-Reid was on hand to slide home his third goal in two games. The hosts might have had more before the break but Cairney curled an effort fractionally wide from outside the box and Butland did brilliantly to claw away a Mitrovic header at the far post.
Fulham failed to start the second half with a similar intensity and it was Stoke who created the early chances. Lee Gregory did well to link up with Sam Clucas inside the home penalty area, but the former Hull midfielder could only rasp the side netting with a fierce drive. At the other end, Mitrovic almost released Decordova-Reid inside the box but a fine tackle from Danny Baath prevented him from making the most of the opportunity.
Stoke were seeing far more of the ball than during the first half and Rodak had to be alert to field a speculative shot from Jordan Cousins after an encouraging spell of possession for the visitors. Fulham’s own attempts on goal were far more sporadic: Mawson couldn’t get a clean connection on a corner and dragged an effort wide, whilst Butland produced a superb one-handed save to deny Bryan’s piledriver from distance after a quick free-kick.
As time ticked by, Stoke looked like the more likely scorers. Substitute Tyrese Campbell, who scored the opener in Stoke’s home win over Fulham back in November, snatched a little at an effort that Rodak got down well to smother before Parker’s early withdrawal of Cairney signalled that the Whites were happy to try and hold onto their slender advantage. Stoke, playing with an injured Shawcross as an additional centre forward at this point, threw bodies forward but their clearest chance fell to McClean, who was bravely denied by Rodak.
Ream hacked a late effort from Joe Allen clear from underneath his own crossbar during six minutes of stoppage time and it said everything about how the balance of power had shifted within this contest that Fulham were relieved to hear the final whistle. The victory takes Parker’s side back to third in the table – nine points behind Leeds and West Brom – but the Whites will need to be far more clinical should they wish to mount a serious automatic promotion push in the new year.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Mawson (Odoi 67), Ream; Reed, Onomah (Cavaleiro 37), Cairney (S. Sessegnon 84); Knockaert, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Johansen, O’Riley, Kamara.
BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Rodak.
GOAL: Decordova-Reid (26).
STOKE CITY (4-3-3): Butland; Smith, Ward (Martins-Indi 42), Shawcross, Baath; Allen, Cousins (Campbell 75), Clucas; Ince, McClean, Gregory (Vokes 69). Subs (not used): Davies, Lindsay, Woods, Biram Diouf.
BOOKED: Ince, Shawcorss, Martins-Indi.
REFEREE: Andy Davies (Hampshire).