Wigan Athletic remain in trouble. Despite their stirring feats of late, they were made to ride their luck and ended up running out of it, Philippe Senderos emerging as an unlikely hero with his first Fulham goal a few minutes from the final whistle. So a team good enough to beat Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool and unfortunate to lose at Chelsea might yet be relegated, especially if the most piquant of their concluding assignments – a short trip to Blackburn – proves unkind.
It was a slow burner of a match but it was often exciting in the second half as Wigan took an advantage through Emmerson Boyce, had it swiftly cancelled by Pavel Pogrebnyak and survived a flick by the Russian that appeared to cross the goal-line before succumbing to Senderos's header from a free-kick.
"We deserved it," said Martin Jol, the Fulham manager. "Boyce's goal seemed to wake us up. But you need to show patience against a team like Wigan."
Roberto Martinez's team took some breaking down, even if they lacked the cutting edge displayed at Arsenal five days before. It hardly helped that Franco Di Santo, who opened the scoring at the Emirates Stadium, went off after little more than half an hour with an injury Martinez ascribed to "too much football''. Maybe it was "one match too many" for his players.
They had returned to London exuding the confidence expected of a team who had overcome Arsenal. There was a mild scare when Brede Hangeland got his head to a corner, but soon Wigan were putting their passes together, threatening mainly through Jordi Gomez's work between the Fulham lines. But Gomez was another who departed; he lost effectiveness and was replaced by Shaun Maloney 10 minutes into the second half.
Fulham's job was to remind the visitors of how things had been when they occupied bottom place for two months to mid-March, but Jol had prepared his men to take their time against such a well organised side, even though Wigan lost the focal point of their attack in Di Santo. With openings few and far between at this stage, there was a less than fevered atmosphere. Pogrebnyak, an instant hit at the Cottage with five goals since his arrival from Stuttgart in midwinter, toiled vainly at the front. The prolific Clint Dempsey, coming in off the left, set off on a promising run only to be felled by Maynor Figueroa. No free-kick was given, but at least there was some noise.
It was maintained, but initially by the minority from Lancashire, under whose gaze Boyce put Wigan ahead. The right-back moved inside and fed Connor Sammon, whose attempt at a flick for the advancing Maloney rebounded back to Boyce. A low drive flashed past Mark Schwarzer. Wigan had taken a step towards salvation.
It was all too soon reversed thanks to Pogrebnyak, whose ability to make much of little is remarkable. Having exchanged nudged passes with Dempsey just outside the penalty area, he still seemed to have no immediate prospect but he half-turned to make room for a low left-footer that left Ali Al-Habsi helpless.
Fulham deserved to be ahead a few minutes later. Decisions, it is frequently stated, tend to go the way of the big teams, so maybe it was appropriate that Wigan, who had been behaving like the biggest thing in the Premier League, should be the beneficiaries when Pogrebnyak's flick came down off the bar, crossing the line on the evidence of replays not available to Lee Mason or the other match officials.
Pogrebnyak, now central to almost everything, then scuffed the ball against a post after Al-Habsi had gone full length to parry an angled shot from Dempsey. Jol had another card to play in the pacy young winger Kerim Frei; he challenged Boyce, who fouled him, and the free-kick was flighted by John Arne Riise to the near post, where Senderos was unmarked and made firm enough contact to leave Al-Habsi helpless.
Martinez seldom gets too gloomy after a defeat and even this one found him optimistically looking forward to "the next match". A nice one against a team with little to play for? It is at home to Newcastle.
Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Hughes, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise; Duff, Diarra, Murphy (Frei, 81), Dembele, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak.
Wigan Athletic (4-1-4-1): Al-Habsi; Boyce, Alcaraz, Caldwell, Figueroa; McCarthy; Gomez (Maloney, 56), McArthur (Watson, 75), Moses, Beausejour; Di Santo (Sammon, 33).
Referee Lee Mason.
Man of the match Pogrebnyak (Fulham).
Match rating 7/10.