STOKE CITY signed off their Premier League action at the Britannia Stadium in scintillating style by producing arguably their most accomplished performance of the season to consign Fulham to the Championship.
Goals from Peter Odemwingie, Marko Arnautovic, Oussama Assaidi and Jonathan Walters recorded a thoroughly deserved three points for Mark Hughes’ side in their final home game of the campaign and in the process reached the 47-point marker – the joint highest ever achieved in the Premier league.
The margin of victory should undoubtedly have been far greater with Fulham ‘keeper David Stockdale producing a magnificent performance to thwart the likes of Assaidi, Stephen Ireland and the outstanding Arnautovic, whilst Kieran Richardson netted a consolation for his side late on.
The magnitude of the game appeared to be far too much for the visitors to digest, as they struggled to have any real impact in a game that boss Felix Magath described as a must win if they were to defy the odds and retain their top-flight status.
The German, who arrived in the country with an impressive CV, made wholesale changes to his eleven prior to kick-off, including handing England striker Darren Bent a rare start up-front ahead of the more influential Hugo Rodallega.
Meanwhile, Mark Hughes was enforced into making one change to his starting line-up prior to kick-off, whilst he opted to make another as he aimed to guide his side to maximum points for one final time on home turf this campaign.
Skipper Ryan Shawcross was missing as he served a one-match suspension following his harsh dismissal seven days earlier, meaning Spanish Under-21 starlet Marc Muniesa stepped in to the eleven to fill the void.
More surprisingly however, was the exclusion of leading goalscorer Peter Crouch, who dropped down to the substitutes bench to accommodate Liverpool loanee Assaidi – who started for the first time in almost three months.
The Moroccan’s presence in the side meant a start up-front for Peter Odemwingie, with the Nigerian having more often than not lined-up on the right hand side of a front three since making his move to the Potteries from Cardiff City in January.
The exhilarating atmosphere that had swept around the stadium during the 1-0 defeat against Spurs last time out was indeed evident once more during the opening stages of this particular encounter, with the fans in fantastic voice at the sun-basked stadium.
They were very nearly given something to cheer about just two minutes in when a superb passage of play culminated in Steven Nzonzi delivering an inch-perfect reverse pass across the 18-yard box, although Assaidi was unfortunately unable to hit the target from 12-yards.
You could sense the nervousness and anxiety within the Fulham side as they continued to battle against the drop, and their chances of retaining top-flight status could have been severely dented had Odemwingie or Erik Pieters had been able to hit the target with efforts from the edge of the box.
There was one brief moment of worry at the other end of the pitch when an uncharacteristic mistake from Geoff Cameron allowed Darren Bent to surge forward, however, he was stopped in his tracks by the impressive Muniesa.
In fact it wasn’t until the 22-minute mark that Felix Magath’s side had their first effort at goal, but even when that occurred Steve Sidwell’s strike caused more worry to the supporters perched in the Boothen End than it did to Asmir Begovic.
The home side remained the team more likely to forge the breakthrough as the half wore on with former Manchester City midfielder Ireland twice bringing the best out of Cottagers stopper David Stockdale with ambitious long-range efforts.
The lively Assaidi was next to try his luck from distance, but not for the first time Stockdale came to his side’s rescue with another smart save down at his near post after the winger let rip a thunderous effort after cleverly manoeuvring space on the left.
You could sense an imminent breakthrough as the Potters continued to bombard the Fulham penalty area, so it came as absolutely no surprise when the deadlock was finally broken six minutes before the interval.
A delightful Glenn Whelan punt forward was majestically controlled by Arnautovic, he swivelled with the ball to feed Ireland, whose goal-bound effort was deflected on to the bar, but thankfully it fell straight into the path of Odemwingie who dispatched his fifth goal for the Club.
Soon after Arnautovic forced Stockdale into yet another impressive save with a thumping effort from an acute angle, before Dan Burn hacked away the free ball with Odemwingie approaching ready to tap home his second goal of the afternoon.
The start of the second half heralded a slightly brighter showing from the visitors with Scott Parker testing Begovic from distance, but normality was to be resumed soon after when Cameron very nearly picked out the unmarked Ireland inside the 6-yard box.
Magath had undoubtedly ordered a far more attacking second half showing from his side in one last bid to preserve their top-flight status, though that ultimately proved to be their downfall as a classic counter-attack resulted in Odemwingie teeing up Arnautovic 15-yards home, and he finished with aplomb to double the hosts advantage.
The Cottagers had crumbled and their destiny appeared sealed, especially given the fact that Sunderland were in-front against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but there was no stopping the intent of the home side who added a third to their tally 20 minutes from time.
Nzonzi drove forward with the ball, fed Arnautovic down the right, he used his pace to leave John Arne Riise for dead and delivered a delightful ball across to Assaidi who made no mistake in tucking home his fifth strike of the season.
Hughes’ side weren’t to have it all their own way however, as the visiting 3,000 or so supporters were at least given a moment to savour when Richardson hammered home a consolation strike for the Londoners.
Charlie Adam, Walters and Matthew Etherington, who took to the field one final time, were all introduced late on from the bench, and two of them combined to devastating effect eight minutes from time.
Scotland international Adam slipped Republic of Ireland ace Walters through on goal, he outmuscled John Heitinga and calmly fired the ball past the helpless Stockdale to send the majority of fans inside the stadium into delirium and cap off a quite spectacular performance.