Dimitar Berbatov’s wonderful volley on his 200th Premier League appearance sealed Fulham’s 1-0 victory over Stoke at Craven Cottage.
The hosts were the better side and merited the three points, but it took something special to deliver them, with the Bulgarian lashing a ball into the near corner at pace on the stroke of half time.
Despite the setback the visitors, who are now winless in their last 15 Premier League visits to London, did not give up.
Mark Schwarzer came to Fulham’s rescue, saving Jon Walters’ 56th-minute penalty low to his right, in what was Stoke’s best chance of an equaliser.
But as the match drew to a close it was Fulham who came nearer to the second goal, with Berbatov, Steve Sidwell and John Arne Riise all going close.
With neither side troubled by thoughts of Europe on one hand or relegation on the other, it looked an unappetising contest on paper, but began brightly.
Walters, played through by Geoff Cameron, drew an early save from Mark Schwarzer with an angled shot at the far corner – and might even have done better by slipping a pass across for Matthew Etherington, whose afternoon was cut short with a back injury, bringing Brek Shea into the contest for his debut midway through the first half.
Ruiz had the ball in the back of the net for Fulham 11 minutes in – but he used his hand to tip a devilish Damien Duff delivery beyond Schwarzer, and earned a booking for his efforts.
Moments later there was drama as Berbatov inadvertently caught Steven Nzonzi in the nose as the pair jumped for a header. Nzonzi, whose nose was bloodied in the clash, fumed for minutes afterwards, and was lucky to escape with just a booking after making contact with Ruiz’s face.
Giorgos Karagounis went close with the resulting free kick, but the game began to peter out towards half time.
Despite Fulham having been the better side, it looked set to go to the break goalless until Berbatov’s moment of magic in time added on.
Robert Huth headed a cross from Sascha Riether away, but the ball looped to the 32-year-old, whose right-footed volley was sweetly-timed, accurate and unsaveable.
Stoke responded in the second half, Philippe Senderos almost getting himself into a complete mess shepherding the ball back towards his goalkeeper and allowing Peter Crouch to steal in. Only Schwarzer’s brilliant reflexes denied him a goal – and it was the same again soon after from the penalty spot.
Ashkan Dejagah gave the chance away, adjudged to have handballed as Shea turned a cross back towards goal.
Walters missed his last Premier League spot kick over the bar against Chelsea, but this time his effort was goalbound and it took an athletic stop from the Australian to deny him.
There were further chances thereafter, but they largely fell Fulham’s way, with Stoke’s most noteworthy incident an off-the-ball challenge from Robert Huth on Philippe Senderos which may yet be looked at retrospectively.
Berbatov flicked the ball over the Stoke defence twice before Begovic denied him a superb second, while Riise’s outrageous outside-of-the-boot strike was only just over the far corner.
The best of the lot, however, fell for Sidwell. Bryan Ruiz set up it up with a smooth run to the byline and a cutback, and after Berbatov had failed to control it Sidwell’s strike deflected just wide.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Mark Schwarzer (Fulham) - Berbatov may have provided the stand-out moment, but the dependable Schwazer was Fulham's most consistent performer.
FULHAM: Schwarzer 8; Riether 7, Senderos 5, Hangeland 7, Riise 7; Dejagah 7, Sidwell 7, Karagounis 7, Duff 7; Ruiz 7; Berbatov 7 – Subs - Baird (N/A), Emanuelson (N/A), Petric (N/A)
STOKE: Begovic 8; Shotton 6, Shawcross 7, Huth 6, Wilson 6; Walters 5, Whelan 6, Cameron 7, Nzonzi 5, Etherington 6; Crouch 6 – Subs - Shea 7, Jones (N/A), Jerome 6