Those predicting Stoke’s excellent 2-0 victory in the last away match at West Brom three weeks ago would be the start of a run of better away form were proved sadly wrong today, as an injury blunted Potters side was left with a familiar feeling of homesickness, after suffering a 1-0 defeat by Fulham at Craven Cottage, despite a spirited performance, particularly in the second half. Norwegian striker Erik Nevland scored the only goal of the game for the hosts, just before the half hour mark, meaning Stoke are still in search of a first ever Premier League point in London. Because of results elsewhere, with Sunderland and Hull both losing, today’s action has actually strengthened Stoke’s grip on a place in the top flight next season, as results elsewhere mean we remain in twelfth place, eight points clear of the relegation zone but now with just twelve to play for, though strugglers Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Blackburn and Portsmouth are all still to play this weekend.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis, who will run the London marathon tomorrow, was forced into making three changes before the match, with star striker James Beattie, as well as regular full-backs Andy Wilkinson and Danny Higginbotham all ruled out through injury. As I expected and feared, it was Richard Cresswell who replaced Beattie up front, being preferred to Henri Camara and Seyi Olofinjana to partner top scorer Ricardo Fuller, while Irish international Stephen Kelly played at right-back, with the versatile Danny Pugh filling the left-back slot. There were also rare places on the bench for defensive duo Carl Dickinson and Leon Cort. Pulis’s Fulham counterpart Roy Hodgson was also forced into making a change to his usually very settled side, with Hungarian midfielder Zoltan Gera playing in place of the injured Simon Davies.
Danny Pugh, pictured sliding in on Fulham’s Diomansy Camara, made his tenth start of the season in place of the injured Danny Higginbotham
With both sides playing free from any immediate worries beneath them, they were able to put together some decent football in the early stages, though there were no clear cut chances in an open first twenty-five minutes, with Fuller and Rory Delap wasting the only sightings of goal for the Potters, and Fulham’s American midfielder Clint Dempsey firing well wide from the hosts’ only effort.
This was to change though on twenty-nine minutes, as the Londoners took the lead through Nevland, who has only been on the pitch for five minutes, coming on for Bobby Zamora, who had picked up a knock, after an incisive breakaway. Counter-attacking quickly after a Delap long throw was cleared, Fulham poured forward, Andy Johnson finding the Norwegian six yards out, and he finished with aplomb, clipping the ball over fellow Scandinavian Thomas Sorensen in the Stoke goal.
Nevland, his body position more akin to his country’s ski jumpers than footballers, beats Sorensen to score the decisive goal
Minutes later, Fulham were forced into another substitution, Johnson also picking up an injury and being replaced by Stoke captain Abdoulaye Faye’s Senegalese international teammate Diomansy Kamara. With both of Fulham’s first choice forwards off, Stoke may have expected a decline in the quality of Fulham’s attacking play. This was not the case though, as they produced their best spell of the half in its final minutes, enjoying a lot of the ball in Stoke’s defensive third and narrowly missing out on doubling their advantage before half time, Dickson Etuhu, Paul Konchesky and Nevland all missing chances. As it was, the half ended with Fulham with a deserved single goal lead, and Stoke needing to produce better in the second half to stand a chance of extending our unbeaten run beyond four games.
After a slow start to the second half, Stoke did begin to create a little more, Ryan Shawcross having a sight of goal from Liam Lawrence’s corner. The gargantuan centre-back was unlucky not to net his fourth of the season though, as he saw his header bounce before the goalline and over Fulham ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer’s crossbar. Fuller also had an opportunity to level the score a minute later, but he was inaccurate from the edge of the area after latching on to Delap’s ball. In truth, this was the story of the game for Stoke, who failed to test Schwarzer anything like enough, having eight efforts off target and forcing the Australian into just one save, that being proved academic as a foul was awarded Fulham’s way anyway.
The force of Stephen Kelly’s clearance sends Clint Dempsey flying high into the air
Fuller and Shawcross again missed headers in the closing minutes, while a trio of late substitutions, Camara, Dickinson and Ibrahima Sonko coming on, failed to make a difference. Meanwhile, Kamara failed to really trouble Sorensen, from what was Fulham’s only real chance of the half. So it finished, Fulham claiming a hard fought victory, and Stoke left to rue wastefulness in the final third in a game that will hardly go down as one of the more memorable encounters of the season. With the Potters still on 39 points, Pulis spoke after the game of his eagerness to pass the forty point barrier that is usually considered enough for safety, but with many teams in far deeper trouble than us, and a home game against West Ham in a week’s time offering a good chance to record a tenth home win in the Premier League this season, you have to think that we have done enough to survive, despite today’s disappointing result.
Fulham are now definitely looking up the table, with the win lifting them into seventh and the final Europa League place, two points clear of the Hammers and with a superior goal difference as the season reaches its climax.
Stoke Side: (4:4:2)
Kelly Shawcross Abdoulaye Faye Pugh
Lawrence Delap Whelan Etherington
Substitutions: Sonko for Kelly & Camara for Cresswell (83), Dickinson for Pugh (87)
Unused Substitutes: Simonsen, Cort, Olofinjana, Tonge
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