If this was the moment which will keep Fulham in the Premier League next season, it was worthy of it.
The only goal here yesterday was a volleyed masterpiece from Dimitar Berbatov, the most artistic player in the division.
It won the points for Fulham, sending them a healthy nine clear of the relegation zone. The regulars here can look forward to another year of aesthetic entertainment from Berbatov next season.
The goal was the final action of a tense and anxious first half, and was at odds with everything that came before it. In added time, Ashkan Dejagah and Sascha Riether combined down the right wing and Riether crossed into the box. Robert Huth headed the ball back out and into the air. Berbatov, just inside the area, anticipating the ball’s arc, stood and waited for it to fall. With wonderful balance, judgement and technique he struck through the ball. It flew, as only a perfectly volleyed football can, past Asmir Begovic and into the near top corner of the net.
“I told him a couple of months ago he never scored volleys any more because he used to do it all the time,” Fulham manager, Martin Jol, said afterwards. Berbatov ran over to Jol when he scored to remind him of that, but the manager was pleased: “He tries to prove a point, because he’s a good sport.”
Berbatov said it was not an unusual occurrence. “It’s all about the practice,” he explained. “I practise in training and score against Mark [Schwarzer] all the time. You just need to do something special and you do it. It is a good one but I have better ones.”
Jol insisted afterwards that the contribution of Schwarzer was just as crucial to the victory. “There were a few things that were important to us,” he said. “It was a special team effort and a special goalkeeper, he made three great saves.”
Schwarzer had to save Jonathan Walters’s penalty early in the second half, diving low to his right when many would have expected power down the middle. “We looked at video footage before the game and I was relatively confident where it was going to go,” he explained. That was the closest Stoke came to scoring and, as the game went on, Fulham, increasingly relaxed and confident, started to dominate.
That was largely thanks to the effect of Berbatov’s goal because before then there was little in the game. Fulham had won one of their last five games, Stoke one of their previous seven. The play was slow, patchy and the only highlights were indiscretions. Berbatov elbowed Steven Nzozni. Bryan Ruiz handballed Damien Duff’s free-kick into the net and was booked. Nzonzi smacked Ruiz in the face and, rather generously, was only booked himself.
Fulham were the better side; Dejagah shot wide while Begovic had to save from Giorgos Karagounis and John Arne Riise, but it was only in the second half that the game started to open up.
Just 10 minutes into that second period Stoke had their chance with the penalty after Dejagah raised his arms to block Brek Shea’s cross, but Walters could not beat Schwarzer. Tony Pulis threw on Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones in the hope of adding more physical presence up front but, with Brede Hangeland on top form, Stoke could not get through.
“In the second half we missed an opportunity, missed a penalty – that’s been our story away from home,” Pulis said. “We haven’t taken chances when games have been tight.”
Fulham’s passing improved, with Karagounis, Riether and Dejagah all impressive, and they could have scored a second. Karagounis curled a shot over, Steve Sidwell had one deflected wide and substitute Mladen Petric misdirected in added time. But quality had already told.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise; Sidwell, Karagounis (Baird, 81); Duff (Emanuelson, 86), Ruiz, Dejagah; Berbatov (Petric, 90).
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Shotton, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; Nzonzi, Whelan; Walters, Cameron (Jerome, 51), Etherington (Shea, 24); Crouch (Jones, 70).
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Berbatov (Fulham)
Match rating: 6/10