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Fulham 0 Stoke City 1: match report
Published : 05 May 2010 22:14:24
This might have been listed as a Premier League fixture but, in reality, it was an occasion that felt rather more like a service of thanksgiving. There was gratitude for Fulham owner Mohamed al Fayed, who was introduced for a pre-match walk across the pitch and a wave of his scarf. There was fulsome appreciation of the players, whose lap of honour to mark the end of the season was thunderously applauded. And, even in defeat, there was the astonishing acclaim that awaited manager Roy Hodgson, the modest architect of arguably the best season in Fulham's history. Hodgson looked almost embarrassed by all the hero-worship but, as a send-off for the club's first-ever European final, it was a moment to treasure. It will certainly live longer in the collective memory of all those present at Craven Cottage than the preceding 90 minutes, when Stoke City clinched a scrappy match with an 81st minute winner from Matthew Etherington. It is a result that sees Tony Pulis' team leapfrog Fulham and Blackburn into 10th in the Premier League table. After fielding what West Ham co-owner David Gold might have called the 'ladies team' on Sunday, Fulham were at full strength last night with the side that may well start the Europa League final against Atletico Madrid. The only probable caveat being Bobby Zamora, whose achilles injury meant a 100th Premier League start for Clint Dempsey alongside Zoltan Gera in attack. Hodgson's thinking in playing his best team would have been two-fold. With every Premier League place worth £500,000, the final league position is of sufficient financial importance for Fulham to continue their push for a second-successive season in the top-half. Uppermost in Hodgson's thinking, however, was surely the Europa League final next Wednesday. Having made seven changes against West Ham United on Sunday and with the certainty of more squad rotation against Arsenal this Sunday Hodgson clearly did not want to risk allowing key players to lose sharpness by resting for a full fortnight. It all meant plenty of concern every time a Fulham player went to ground. Stoke also did not hold back in their tackling, with Robert Huth, Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller causing anxious moments following respective challenges on Dempsey, Dickson Etuhu and Brede Hangeland inside the first 20 minutes. Despite Stoke's commitment, the better football and best first-half chances all belonged to Fulham. Damien Duff shined one inviting opportunity wide from a corner and then crossed accurately for Gera, who was similarly profligate from an excellent position. A neat exchange of passes between Etuhu and Dempsey provided another sight of goal for Gera, but the Hungarian's low shot was comfortably saved by Asmir Begovic. With so few first-half chances and relatively little at stake on the pitch, the Stoke supporters coped with much of the boredom by performing an impromptu rendition of the conga. Fulham fans were similarly distracted from the on-field tedium and quick to exhaust their entire repertoire of songs about Hodgson and the forthcoming visit to Hamburg. The second-half, thankfully, provided rather more incident. Stoke even began threatening the Fulham goal, with Etherington providing some width down the left with his feet and Rory Delap performing a similar trick with his arms. A trademark Delap long-throw caused considerable confusion in the Fulham defence, but Fuller headed wide from an unmarked position on the edge of the six-yard box. Mark Schwarzer also came under considerable pressure from crosses yet again demonstrated the sort of safe handling that has been such a factor of Fulham's season. In attack, there were further flashes of quality, not least when Gera split Stoke's defence with a brilliant reverse pass only for Begovic to block Dempsey's shot. Fulham, though, was made to rue their missed chances when Paul Konchesky was unexpectedly dispossessed on the edge of his penalty area by Ricardo Fuller. He glanced up and crossed to the far-post where Etherington smashed his shot beyond Schwarzer.