A tale of two midfields: ours bossed the game, they didn’t use theirs at all. That’s Fulham v Stoke in a nutshell, and it feels right that the more attentive and skilful eleven should have prevailed. Which is not to moralise – Stoke wouldn’t be where they are if they played any other way – but equally, if everyone played like they do…
We had previous here, too. Dembele v Wilkinson, and therefore Hughes v Pulis and Murphy v Stoke City and its stakeholders. It gave the match a nice edge, an edge sharpened by the presence of haphazard referee Stuart Atwell, whose reputation now preceeds him to the point where it’s impossible to tell if he’s doing his job properly or not, such is the derision shown after most of his decisions: today he seemed more concerned with the minutiae (take that free-kick 5 yards back there) than more serious offences (take as long as you like, Mr Begovic, anything up to 5 minutes per goal kick will be fine).
The Fulham players won their battles in the end. Dembele mightn’t have chosen a game like this to get back on track, but his class told more often than not, and he wasn’t afraid to mix it when he had to. Hughes won the game, and Murphy (again) dominated the middle of the pitch, his every touch cheered on by a nicely boisterous crowd.
We started well, Duff smashing a shot against the bar from 25 yards out, then Dempsey made it 1-0 following some good, eager work by Andy Johnson, who worked down the inside right channel and squared it across the area. Dempsey arrived noisily to turn the ball over Begovic, a typical goal from a man who is having a tremendous season.
We couldn’t build on the lead though, and the game moved from phases where we were in charge, in which the ball was pinged around nicely, and phases where it all got horribly messy, in which nobody could take control. Kenwyn Jones was briefly in fine form, winning a number of headers convincingly and making life hard for Hughes and Hangeland. But then he just disappeared from the game.
The second half saw more of the same, a well deserved second goal arriving when Murphy turned in the centre-circle and launched a long ball over the top into the path of Dempsey, who managed to turn the ball between the two centre-backs with Bergkamp-esque deftness (or a slightly iffy first touch). He was clean through but hauled down by Shawcross, who then had to go. Murphy took the ball but somehow or other Dempsey ended up with it, smashing home his second. Murphy trotted back to the halfway line rather than celebrate with Dempsey, suggesting that he wasn’t altogether pleased with his team-mate’s spirited insubordination. He probably has a point, but Dempsey deserved the goal, and took the penalty with great conviction.
It was over at that point. Etuhu, who had another good game, made way for Steve Sidwell, who became only the second Fulham player on the field with his shirt tucked in (the other was Duff). Sidwell looked instantly at home, tackling well and passing competently and surely. He struck a fine drive just wide and will have been pleased to get his first game in under such straightforward circumstances. Gera and Halliche were also given a run-out with 15 minutes left (we had a pretty good bench today, featuring Gera, Davies, Kamara, Sidwell, Halliche and presumably Etherington – you can change a lot of games with players like that available).
And so it goes, and so it goes. We were better than them and we beat them good and proper.