When Mark Hughes said last weekend that his Fulham team could challenge for a place in the top ten of the Barclays Premier League, most people probably thought he was being a little optimistic for the manager of a side that had been in the bottom three on Boxing Day. But this comfortable victory suggests that Hughes might know something after all.
Clint Dempsey's seventh and eighth league goals of the season gave Fulham a haul of ten points from five games, a sequence that began with a 2-0 victory at Stoke on December 28th. Yesterday they recorded back-to-back wins at Craven Cottage for the first time this season as well as a league double over opponents whose physical challenge might have been expected to cause them problems.
Instead Stoke inflicted wounds on themselves, having Ryan Shawcross, their captain, sent off for conceding the penalty from which Dempsey scored his second. But the improving form of Andrew Johnson and Mousa Dembele, both of whom have missed parts of the season through injury, was also a factor.
"We were convinced things would turn when we got injured players back," Hughes said. "We had a great result against Stoke away from home which galvanised us and made us understand how we need to win games in a very difficult league."
Shawcross's afternoon could have begun more memorably than it ended had he not put an early header wide, and Stoke had another good chance when Kenwyne Jones hit the outside of a post after a miscued clearance fell his way six yards out.
Fulham, though, were the better side, Damien Duff hitting the crossbar from 25 yards and forcing a diving save from Asmir Begovic, and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 33 minutes. The hapless Shawcross was slow to react when Johnson took possession in the area, darted past him and crossed low for Dempsey to steal a yard on Andy Wilkinson and hit a first-time shot into the roof of the net.
Fulham doubled their advantage after 54 minutes as Dempsey took Danny Murphy's long pass with an exquisite first touch that would have set him up for a shot on goal had Shawcross not wrestled him to the ground. The red card was inevitable, Dempsey's penalty unerring.
"2-0 to the football team," the Fulham supporters sang. Stoke introduced John Carew for his debut after joining on loan from Aston Villa for the rest of the season, but he made little impression. "We had great chances, as poorly as we've played," Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, said. "But the sending off and the penalty killed the game. Dempsey's a very clever player."
Referee: Stuart Atwell
Man of the match: Dempsey