Marco Silva’s contented smile at full time said it all. Fulham underlined their promotion credentials by passing their toughest test of the season – and sweeping aside Stoke City, one of the early pacesetters, with a bit to spare. It took Harry Wilson five minutes to mark his return from suspension with a well-worked first and second half goals from Bobby Decordova-Reid and Aleksandar Mitrovic ensured the Whites remained top of the Championship. The margin would have been far greater were it not for a superb goalkeeping display from Joe Bursik, who superbly saved a late Mitrovic penalty, and prevented Fulham from running riot.
Silva made three changes from the side that had beaten Hull City at Craven Cottage last weekend. Denis Odoi replaced Kenny Tete at right wing whilst Bobby Decordova-Reid and Harry Wilson came in for Neeskens Kebano and Ivan Cavaleiro on the wings. Odoi might not be the adventurous right back that the Portuguese head coach deserves but the Belgian defender did a decent job of getting forward from outset, winning an early corner and then having a goalbound header blocked.
The fluidity of Fulham’s front line posed Stoke’s three centre halves serious problems throughout – and this was seen in the way the home side hit the front. Wilson popped up in the inside left channel having darted right across the field without the ball and sprayed a lovely pass for the onrushing Decordova-Reid. The Jamaican international advanced down the left flank and fed Mitrovic in the box – with a cushioned lay-off allowing Wilson to find the far corner with a lovely left-footed low finish.
It was so simple – and yet, when Fulham are this fluent at full speed, they appear unstoppable. Another well-worked move down the left saw Antonee Robinson and Decordova-Reid, with the latter curling an effort fractionally over the bar from the edge of the box. Jean Michael Seri dictated proceedings peerlessly from the heart of the midfield and the Ivorian almost reprised his only Fulham goal with a fine effort from 25 yards that Bursik did brilliantly to palm away. Silva’s side might have had a second from the corner but, after Mitrovic and Tosin Adarabioyo had efforts blocked, Odoi screwed a volley off target.
Stoke are more progressive than pugnacious under Michael O’Neill and had plenty of patient periods of possession but struggled to find a final ball. There was, though, almost a repeat of the glorious goal Josh Tyman scored against Nottingham Forest last weekend when Mario Vranic threaded a ball through for the overlapping wing-back but his shot was well smothered by Paulo Gazzaniga. The visitors were almost undone by a brilliant individual burst from Fabio Carvalho. The teenager won the ball deep in his own half and sprinted fully sixty yards before drawing another excellent save from Bursik when he pulled the trigger from just outside the area.
Adarabioyo went close to a second when he took aim from fully 30 yards but his ambitious effort didn’t quite dip enough to trouble Bursik. Tim Ream somehow stabbed over when Mitrovic nodded down a Wilson free-kick and Bursik had to alert to prevent Robinson from ramming home a Decordova-Reid through ball as the full back raced in on goal, before Mitrovic curled fractionally wide from the edge of the box as the hosts finished the first half very much in the ascendancy. The Stoke goalkeeper showed wonderful agility to claw over Adarabioyo’s header that appeared destined for the top corner – as Silva’s side somehow went in just one goal to the good at the break.
Any worries that the Whites might pay for their prolificacy were banished eight minutes into the second period. Decordova-Reid’s beautifully disguised pass allowed Mitrovic to advance into the penalty area and, although Bursik got a hand to the Serbian’s shot after he had skipped inside Ben Wilmot, Decordova-Reid buried the rebound to notch his first goal of the season. It was a deserved reward for the winger’s dynamism and ceaseless running that offered Fulham a different dimension in attack.
O’Neill sent on Sam Surridge to try and perk up his attack and the former Bournemouth forward quickly signalled his intentions, forcing a smart save from Gazzaniga at his near post within minutes of entering the fray. The visitors probed patiently for much of the second period but struggled to unlock a resolute Fulham defence and looked vulnerable to being picked off on the counter. That nearly happened when Josh Onomah’s raking ball released Wilson, but the Welsh winger’s measured finish hit the outside of the far post and rolled wide.
Mitrovic got his reward for a tireless performance, full of clever flicks and fine hold up play, with seventeen minutes remaining. It was a typical poacher’s goal as he tucked home after Wilson had sent a Decordova-Reid cross back across goal – showing the finishing instincts that made the new contract he signed yesterday such a no-brainer. To their great credit, Stoke kept coming forward and should have grabbed a consolation when the rapid Alfie Doughty drove down the right and whipped a devilish cross only for Tymon to fluff his lines at the far post.
The only blot on the Fulham copybook came in added time after referee Jared Gillett generously awarded a penalty after Kebano went down under a challenge from Bursik. The goalkeeper – far from impressed by the decision – guessed right and saved Mitrovic’s penalty, but such was the home side’s superiority, it mattered little.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Odoi, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Onomah; Wilson (Kebano 86), Decordova-Reid (Cavaleiro 73), Carvalho (Kebano 86); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Mawson, Bryan, Anguissa.
GOALS: Wilson (5), Decordova-Reid (53), Mitrovic (72).
STOKE CITY (3-5-2): Bursik; Ostigaard, Souter, Wilmot; Smith (Doughty 74), Tymon, Allen, Clucas (Sawyers 68), Vrancic; Fletcher (Surridge 59), Brown. Subs (not used): Davies, Baath, Thompson, Fox.
REFEREE: Jarred Gillett (Australia).