A few weeks had passed since the 0-0 Thriller at Carrow Road and many of us arrived at the Cottage bright and early on Saturday anticipating a game that would be more representative of the Six Nations than the Premier League given our visitors rough and ready approach to long ball football. It would also most likely be the biggest test to date for our newly established Hangeland & Senderos partnership seeing that the majority of Stoke’s goals have come from Set pieces and their aerial threat.
Sacha Riether returned to full back alongside Dejagah on the right with Karagounis and Sidwell in the middle of the park. Despite some encouraging performances in recent weeks Rodallega was left on the bench with Berbatov preferred as a loan forward and Ruiz supporting. As half of the 1st team squad have contracts expiring within 6 months I am sure we were all delighted to see Damien Duff have his contract extended and can only hope it is one of many in the near future. Despite starting against Norwich there was no place in the squad at all for loanee Emanuel Frimpong.
Having been denied a free pie, I had barely reached my seat in the Hammersmith when Stoke had arguably their best chance of the half. Thankfully the early substitution of Etherington seemed to leave our opposition with very little in the way of delivery to Crouch and disrupted any plan to apply early pressure.
Brek Shea who replaced him on the left hand side appeared to be more of an Eddie Johnson level MLS player than a Brian McBride. It was no coincidence then that we looked brightest in the first half down our right flank with Dejagah and Riether linking up well and creating a number of slick interchanges of passing. Following a free kick won in the same area Ruiz attempted to end his goal drought with his hand instead of his head and slapped the ball in to the back of the net even though with better positioning he could have given us the lead within 10 minutes rather than the yellow card he was issued.
What followed in the first half was a pretty solid display from Fulham with some nice passing moves in what were certainly more advanced areas than a fortnight back but still lacking that final cutting edge. Both Berbatov and Ruiz seemed to be holding a higher line unlike in recent weeks where both seemed to harbour more of an ambition to play Defensive Midfield. However they seemed to play in each other’s pockets for most of the half and Stoke’s back four were rarely stretched or troubled by the movements, or lack of , in and around the box.
Following the accidental Berbatov elbow on Nzonzi , The latter was then seen striking Ruiz in the face a few moments later which should have resulted in a straight red card. I can only think that this was either a case of mistaken identity following the original incident or that Nzonzi felt so strongly about Bryan’s attempted hand ball earlier in the game that he felt a need to dish out his own form of punishment.
Just as I started to re consider an attempt to get my free pie, Berbatov decided that it was time to show us another glimpse of just why we persist with his week in week out hands on hips general sense of disgust for the players around him and promptly produced a volley of the highest quality. Again the chance was made on the right with Dejagah and Riether combining only for the initial header away to drop to Berbatov and for him to riffle past Begovic. It was no more than we deserved for a first half performance that we dominated in terms of possession although producing little in the way of chances other than a Karagounis free kick and the “Hand of Bryan”.
Many had billed this as a must win game and with it being one of the easier home fixtures left in the season nothing less than 3 points would do if we were to be able to at least enjoy QPR’s predicament for a few weeks. Of course with Fulham nothing is straight forward and we all knew that it wouldn’t be an early 2nd goal that would settle the crowds nerves. Stoke obviously would look to try and salvage something and our defence who had been relatively unchallenged up to this point would be a lot busier as the game went on. The signs were ominus as little as 5 minutes after the restart when Senderos, who in fairness has looked a lot more assured in recent weeks, showed glimpses of his past offences when instead of getting rid he waited for Schwarzer and Crouch nipped in between only to be denied an equaliser.
As the half progressed we seemed to invite more and more pressure with that feeling of the inevitable scrappy equalizer hanging over us and the atmosphere becoming subdued for large periods.
Sitting in the Hammersmith end is always better in the second half for obvious reasons. In turn it means that anything offered by our guests in attack at the other end can seem painfully far away and difficult to judge while leaving you feeling helpless every time they go forward. It was hard to see the Dejagah handball that lead to the Stoke Penalty but upon seeing Walters step up to take the kick I cast my mind back to a few weeks ago when he had missed one on the same day as netting 2 own goals. The fact that he is in the dream team was little consolation but had he converted it I suppose it was the smallest of silver linings. It was only after the great save from Schwarzer that I remarked to a friend that this was in fact a double bluff on my part as I always had faith in my Dream team goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet…
Stoke did continue to press but it felt like today was our day. Ruiz made a nice little run in the last 15 minutes although the square ball was just out of reach for Berbatov to convert.
Our Bulgarian friend received the applause that his match winner had warranted when he was substituted late on. Jol seemingly waiting until he was as far away from the bench as possible, holding the ball in the corner before replacing him with Petric who had to wait a good 90 seconds for Dimitar to reach him.
The final whistle could not come soon enough and while we had moved another 3 points closer to safety it did not exactly feel like a re assuring victory. A cameo from Emmanuelson reminded us that we did actually make a few acquisitions in January even though none appear to be staking a claim for a regular starting place.
The next few months are going to be a scrap and the sooner we reach 40 points the better. We showed some signs of the intricate passing we can play at our best but with little in the way of a cutting edge. It may well be another few flashes of genius from Berbatov that keep us mid table for the remainder of the season but in the long term we need to offer more. There are not many games left at the Cottage that are going to be as comfortable as Saturday should have been and we are going to have to consider winning another away game this season before we can relax.