Fulham’s 13 years as a Premier League club ended with a whimper, thoroughly outplayed by a Stoke side who could have sent them on their way with a real hiding had they been equipped with the top-class striker Mark Hughes says is his team’s missing ingredient.
Sunderland’s win at Manchester United means that Felix Magath’s side cannot escape the bottom three even if they beat Crystal Palace at Craven Cottage on the last day of the season.
Seven points from four matches during April, including wins against Aston Villa and Norwich, had given Fulham a glimmer of hope, but it was snuffed out ruthlessly.
As Hughes said, expressing sympathy for his former club, “this is an unforgiving league”. Magath, who was experiencing relegation or the first time in a managerial career that includes three Bundesliga titles, was visibly shaken by the tepid manner of his team’s capitulation.
“This is one of my worst days in football,” he said. “I was very confident that we could avoid relegation, I was convinced we came here with a good chance. Before the game, the players seemed confident and ready to fight. But what happened was what in Germany we would call a blackout. From the beginning, we were not in the game.
“I think the team felt too much pressure. We could not run, we could not pass, we could not play so we were never in the game. There was no spirit, there was no fight. There are some tears in the dressing room but I have to take responsibility and I apologise. I was convinced we could stay in the league but now we are relegated.”
The former Bayern Munich coach said he planned to speak to the Fulham owner, Shahid Khan, about his future but said he would like the chance to take the team back into the Premier League.
It was difficult to keep count of the number of chances Stoke created against a side lacking striker Hugo Rodellega, scorer of the winning goals against Norwich and Villa but ruled out by a virus. Fulham rarely showed any of the required fighting qualities. David
Stockdale pulled off a few decent saves, centre-backs John Heitinga and Brede Hangeland managed some commendable blocks; but that was the sum total in terms of spirit.
Stoke squandered several opportunities by shooting high or wide. Yet they still scored four. The hosts went ahead after 39 minutes when a shot by Stephen Ireland hit the underside of the bar, allowing Peter Odemwingie a simple tap-in.
Odemwingie should have had a second moments later, failing to capitalise on a number of chances set up by Oussama Assaidi, the winger on loan from Liverpool.
But Fulham mounted no threat of a response and Stoke’s lead was doubled nine minutes into the second half when Marco Arnautovic completely unmarked as the home side broke from defence, was fed by Odemwingie and beat Stockdale with a decisive finish. Arnautovic, the Austrian international, turned provider for the third goal, sliding across a pass from the right for Assaidi to sidefoot home from close range.
Magath sent on Konstantinos Mitroglou, Fulham’s Greek striker, in an effort to stir a response, having taken off Lewis Holtby before half-time, and Darren Bent, booed by Fulham’s fans for an ineffective display, set up Kieran Richardson to volley in for Fulham, but that goal was quickly cancelled out by Jonathan Walters.
The win takes Stoke to 47 points for the season, equalling their highest tally in the Premier League, which represents a sizeable feather in the cap of manager Hughes, who took Fulham to eighth place in his one season at Craven Cottage. “What was pleasing today was that the game was all about Fulham and we did not have a lot to play for but we played with focus,”said Hughes.
Stoke (4-1-4-1): Begovic; Cameron, Wilson, Muniesa, Pieters; Whelan; Arnautovic, Nzonzi, Ireland (Adam, 70), Assaidi (Etherington, 45); Odemwingie (Walters, 78).
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Burn (Mitroglou, 58), Heitinga, Hangeland, Riise; Parker, Diarra (Kasami, 73); Holtby (Dejagah, 34), Sidwell, Richardson; Bent.
Referee: Chris Foy.
Man of the match: Assaidi (Stoke)