Promotion winners win games when not at their best. They also battle through adversity to secure valuable victories. Fulham did that at Stoke this afternoon. Shorn of talismanic figures, with Aleksandar Mitrovic and Harry Wilson missing through coronavirus concerns, Marco Silva’s men just about edged a see-saw encounter at the Bet 365 Stadium – recovering from going behind within forty seconds and finding a winner when Michael O’Neill’s side seemed to have seized control of the contest in the second half. The most pleasing part of a win that stretches their lead at the top of the Championship to eight points was the telling contribution of two understudies: Rodrigo Muniz bagged a brace, whilst Bobby Decordova-Reid rifled in a fine equaliser.
The hosts could justifiably consider themselves unlucky. Stoke, who started West Brom’s stutter with a home win over the Baggies in October, probably deserved at least a point at the balance of play. The Potters made the perfect start, with D’Margio Phillips – son of Shaun and grandson of Ian – stealing in between Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson to volley home Josh Tymon’s left-wing cross on his first senior start with less than a minute on the clock. Fulham’s response was immediate, however, as Muniz controlled a cross from Harrison Reed, spun away from two centre halves, and rocketed an equaliser into the top corner within sixty seconds.
After such an electric opening, the game became a little more cagey as both sides pressed one another and the visitors passed patiently, probing for an opening. Stoke were as enterprising as they had been at Craven Cottage in August and should have gone back in front when Wright-Phillips skated away down the right and sent a low cross to the back post where Jacob Brown missed his kick with the goal gaping. Tosin Adarabioyo, shortly after nearly getting on the end of a clever Tom Cairney corner, produced a vital interception to prevent the lively Wright-Phillips from going through on goal again – sticking out a leg to preserve parity.
Fulham then retook the lead with a goal that owed everything to Fabio Carvalho’s energy. The talented teenager burst away from Taylor Harwood-Bellis when a ball broke his way in the middle of the park and drove deep into Stoke territory. He slipped a ball out to Decordova-Reid on the right, continuing his run in the centre and his scuffed shot was touched in by an alert Muniz. The well crafted counter attack delighted Silva on the sidelines – and was just the tonic Fulham needed as the hosts of getting to grips with Cairney, who had been running the game from central midfield.
Muniz might have completed a first-half hat trick Mitrovic would have been proud of but his header from Cairney’s floated free kick was straight at Jack Bonham. Stoke were almost handed a route back into the contest before the break when Robinson dawdled on the ball instead of clearing and was robbed by Wright-Phillips but the youngster’s pull back just eluded Lewis Baker.
A single goal advantage seemed slender, especially as Stoke had caused Fulham significant headaches going forward. Kenny Tete almost extended it when he finished a flowing move by drawing a point-blank save from Bonham after being released by Decordova-Reid. The collision with the goalkeeper proved terminal for Fulham’s right back, who was replaced by Denis Odoi. Carvalho cheekily nutmegged James Chester and dug out a dangerous cross that was agonisingly out of reach for Neeskens Kebano.
Just as it looked as though the visitors were in the ascendancy, Stoke levelled through a sublime 25-yarder from Baker. The former Chelsea midfielder took aim from distance in a central position with his dipping drive leaving Marek Rodak grasping at air. The equaliser completely changed the complexion of the contest. The hosts were now quicker to every fifty-fifty, playing the sharper football and looking by far the more threatening. Wright-Phillips almost threaded through Brown and, although Rodak dashed from his line to thwart the forward, Adarabioyo had to clear the danger after the Fulham goalkeeper failed to claim the ball.
The home fans roared their approval but Fulham found a third just as it appeared like they were going to be ground down. Bonham made an ill-fated attempt to claim Cairney’s corner and, after Muniz had rattled the crossbar with a header and Baker failed to clear his lines, Decordova-Reid drove in a fierce finish from the edge of the area. O’Neill made three substitutes in attempt to find a late leveller. The last of these, Aston Villa loanee Jaden Philogene-Bidace, came the closest to making the difference on his debut. The teenage winger’s pace immediately worried Odoi and he nearly squeezed a deflected shot between Rodak and the near post, only for the woodwork to come to Fulham’s rescue. The Slovakian goalkeeper then tipped over a rising drive from the debutant, but referee Dean Whitestone gave a goalkick.
Stoke kept pushing until the end but couldn’t carve out a clear-cut chance in six minutes of added time. It was the lesser spotted Anthony Knockaert who came closest to a sixth goal as he forced a fine save out of Bonham with time ticking away. Fulham clung on for a precious three points: it felt like a serious test passed. Victory over a promotion rival, with two key figures missing, after Stoke had enjoyed the much the better of the second half sends out some statement about the durability of Silva’s side. With Bournemouth beaten at home by Hull, the Whites can bask in an eight point cushion at the top of the Championship until Blackburn host Middlesbrough on Monday night.
STOKE CITY (3-5-2): Bonham; Harwood-Bellis, Chester, Jagielka; Smith, Tymon, Allen (Ince 79), Clucas, Baker; D. Wright-Phillips (Philogene-Bidace 85), Brown (Campbell 79). Subs (not used): Fielding, Fox, Vranic, Fletcher.
BOOKED: Brown, Harwood-Bellis.
GOALS: D. Wright-Phillips (1), Baker (59).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete (Odoi 52), A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Cairney; Decordova-Reid (Knockaert 86), Kebano (Chalobah 76), Carvalho, Muniz. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, Onomah, Stansfield.
GOALS: Muniz (2, 33), Decordova-Reid (72).
REFEREE: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire).