STOKE CITY were made to pay a heavy price for failing to make the most of their goal-scoring opportunities as Fulham snatched a late winner at Craven Cottage.
Substitute Darren Bent bagged an 82nd minute goal to ease the pressure on his manager Martin Jol and settle a contest that Stoke dominated for long spells.
The Potters produced yet another highly positive away day display but their lack of a cutting edge in front of goal cost them dear.
Robert Huth had two headers cleared off the line and Stephen Ireland also went close to forging the breakthrough they so richly deserved, while they also had strong claims for two first half penalties ignored on an afternoon that was tough to take.
Hughes made two changes to his starting line-up with Ireland and the fit-again Matthew Etherington coming in for Charlie Adam and Kenwyne Jones.
It represented Ireland’s first Premier League start since joining the Potters on a season-long loan from Aston Villa, while Etherington returned after missing the defeat by Norwich with whiplash sustained in a car crash.
Jon Walters, who had failed to last the distance against Norwich, shrugged off concerns about his fitness to make his 96th consecutive Premier League start
Stoke started brightly and their positive approach should have been rewarded with a penalty after 16 minutes. Ireland went down under a challenge from Philippe Senderos but referee Roger East waved away the visitors’ appeals for a spot-kick.
He did likewise 14 minutes later, despite Fernando Amorebieta clearly felling Walters inside the area. It looked a clear-cut decision but instead the official awarded Stoke a free-kick on the edge of the box, presumably for an infringement a split-second earlier.
Amorebieta went into the referee’s book and Marko Arnautovic fired the free-kick against the Fulham wall. Stoke went close to breaking the deadlock from the resultant corner as Sascha Riether was forced to clear a Huth header off the line.
Fulham also had reason to feel aggrieved with Mr East as he ignored their appeals for a spot-kick on the stroke of half-time after Marc Wilson had brought down Bryan Ruiz.
The hosts were forced to make a change at the start of the second half as Kieran Richardson replaced skipper Brede Hangeland.
Huth again came close to bagging the game’s opening goal when he headed just inches over the bar from an Etherington corner as the Potters started the second half in a similar fashion to the way they had set about the first.
Dimitar Berbatov’s comical attempt at winning a penalty was treated with the contempt it deserved – although how the Bulgarian avoided a yellow card for simulation is a mystery.
Hughes made his first change of the afternoon just before the hour mark Wilson was replaced by Glenn Whelan in a like-for-like swop and within two minutes the Irishman was booked for a late challenge on Amorebieta.
A second substitution followed soon afterwards as Oussama Assaidi got his first taste of Premier League action as a Stoke player as a replacement for Etherington.
Arnautovic found the back of the net midway through the second half with a cool finish but the whistle had already gone for an offside decision that looked tight to say the very least.
Huth squandered a golden opportunity to break the deadlock 22 minutes from time when he headed over from an Assaidi corner from six yards out, while Ireland went close to opening his goal account for the Club just seconds later.
Assaidi created space for himself to fire over a cross from the right and Ireland’s sweetly-struck volley was just inches away from delighting the Potters’ travelling support behind David Stockdale’s goal.
Riether again came to Fulham’s rescue as he cleared another Huth header off the line before Bent, who had joined the action as a replacement for the injured Berbatov midway through the second half, made his vital contribution.
Pajtim Kasami’s shot was deflected into his path and the striker, on loan from Aston Villa, coolly slotted past Asmir Begovic to snatch a victory Fulham barely deserved.