JONATHAN WALTERS’ second half penalty miss proved to be decisive at Craven Cottage on Saturday afternoon . . . as Fulham recorded a narrow 1-0 victory in front of the live television cameras.
Bulgarian international Dimitar Berbatov capped off his 200th Premier League game with an exquisite volley deep into first half stoppage time to inflict an eighth defeat of the campaign upon Tony Pulis’ side, and move the Cottagers to within one point of the Potters.
Stoke will feel aggrieved not to have take a point away from the capital with them however, after Republic of Ireland international Walters spurned the opportunity of earning his side a draw from the penalty spot shortly after the interval.
Pulis had made two changes to the side which defeated Reading in City’s last outing before a two-week break, the most significant of them being the return of Wilson after a four month absence with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.
His presence meant that American international Cameron was deployed in a midfield role in preference to either Adam or Kightly.
The Potters immediately had a scent of goal when Crouch’s astute header across the 18-yard line picked out Walters and had he managed to control it better with his first touch, then he may well have been left with a clear path to goal.
There was even more encouragement for City when Senderos only managed to half clear an Etherington free kick and this was met with a first time shot from Whelan on the edge of the box which failed to trouble Schwarzer.
They then carved out another opportunity as Walters sprung the offside trap with a burst down the right but with Etherington racing into the middle, his cross-cum-shot flashed across the face of goal much to the home side’s relief.
Fulham responded by creating their first chances of the game, but Berbatov was penalised for a foul when he hooked over the bar from close range and then Ruiz was booked for turning the ball into the net with his left hand.
After a delay while Nzonzi was treated for a damaged nose after being caught by Berbatov’s flailing arm, Fulham exerted more pressure as Duff had a shot charged down by the alert Huth after Sidwell’s burst into the box.
Nzonzi then became the second player to receive a yellow card when he retaliated after being caught again in the face, this time by Ruiz, and the resulting free kick saw Karagounis force an excellent save out of Begovic.
City were forced to make their first change of the afternoon as Shea was handed his debut when he came on for the struggling Etherington who had pulled up with what appeared to be a back problem after twisting to deliver a cross.
As Shea adjusted to the pace of Premier League football, both sides probed for an opening without making too much headway, although Sidwell fashioned an opening with a one-two with Dejagah before lashing his shot past the post.
With the first half drifting into two minutes of added time, the deadlock was broken in stunning fashion with a goal out of the blue from Berbatov.
The Potters seemed to have dealt with the threat as Huth headed clear a cross from, Riether, but the Bulgarian star showed his excellent technique as he unleashed a volley which flew into the top corner, beating Begovic at his near post.
Fulham’s lead could well have been short-lived but for the reflexes of Schwarzer immediately after the restart as Crouch seized upon some hesitation by Sendertos to get in a shot which was instinctively saved by the ‘keeper.
After Pulis had thrown Jerome into the action in place of Cameron, City were then handed a golden chance to draw level.
When Shea tried to flick the ball past Dejagah inside the box, it clearly struck the Fulham player’s arm and the referee pointed to spot.
Walters took the spot and fired it low to Schwarzer’s right, but the ‘keeper was down smartly to get his hands firmly behind it.
Dejagah’s defensive cover was considerably more effective when he spotted the danger posed by Crouch lurking at the far post, turning the ball behind for a corner as the striker attempted to make contact with Shotton’s cross.
Shea was only fractionally off target with a speculative shot from the edge of the box, as indeed Riise was at the other end when he cut in from the left and unleashed a drive with the outside of his left foot which flew over the bar.
After being on the backfoot for long periods of the second half, Fulham pressed forward in search of a second goal and a well-worked set-piece led to Karagounis firing a right foot shot over the bar after making room for himself.
There was another anxious moment for the Potters when Ruiz weaved his way into the box before pulling the ball back where Berbatov failed with his attempt at goal but Sidwell following up rolled his effort wide of the post.
When Nzonzi was a split-second too slow to get in a shot when the ball sat up nicely for him some 20 yards out, Fulham broke quickly through Riether who had dispossessed the midfielder but Ruiz’s ambitious shot was well wide.
Despite the Potters rallying for a late leveller, it all proved to be in vain as Martin Jol’s side held firm to record a crucial three points.