Fulham 1 Stoke City 0: More misery for travelling Stokies
TRAVELLING Stokies, those heading routinely to all four corners to follow their beloved club, must have developed a pretty strong gallows humour by now.
The only question is: who'll be swinging from them?
After just one win in 23 league games on the road it is the manager, more than anyone on these occasions, who will inevitably feel the rope burning the deepest holes around his neck.
But surely, only those with a not-so-hidden agenda against Tony Pulis can apportion him with the majority of blame for this latest defeat.
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Peter Crouch must know he should have buried that rare chance for him just after half-time.
Jon Walters will know he should have deposited that penalty soon after.
Only Steven Nzonzi can explain his temperamental reaction to a cut nose that left onlookers wondering just how long before he picks up a second yellow card.
Even Robert Huth, usually among the least blameless on these occasions, must have squirmed in his armchair every time a TV panel scrutinised a rather brutish fore-arm on Philippe Senderos which, for now, has gone unpunished.
And Stoke's cause was hardly helped when Matthew Etherington exited stage left after his very first canter down the left wing had him clutching the base of his back soon after.
You felt for American newcomer Brek Shea after being chucked onto the pitch for his English debut after only just finding a seat and settling down on the subs' bench.
Was it too early in the game for him? Definitely. But he was the natural replacement for Etherington and, once you've made your mind up that Cameron Jerome is an impact player for the second half, it would have been a wasteful contradiction to have tossed him into the action so early in the afternoon.
Stoke's first-half performance became increasingly backs-to-the-wall after the false dawn of an early attack – mysteriously overlooked by the Match Of The Day highlights – in which Walters played a positive one-two with Crouch and unleashed a cross-shot which was half-parried by the keeper to confound both Walters and the arriving Etherington in the middle.
Sadly, it wasn't the last time Mark Schwarzer was to leave Walters head in hands.
The half-time whistle promised welcome respite for the visitors, but seconds before hearing it blown their defences were breached by the game's one moment of decisive quality.
Not for the first time Fulham troubled Stoke's left-hand side, where Marc Wilson was feeling his way back into proceedings after four months out, and from the moment a right-wing cross was headed into the air by Robert Huth you feared the worst.
Not least because the man steadying himself for the 12-yard volley to follow was Dimitar Berbatov, that cocktail of lazy brilliance, who looped a powerful effort into the top corner to claim a goal worthy of winning better games than this.
Fulham's lead was merited on the balance of play, but within 10 minutes of the restart they could easily have been 2-1 behind.
Crouch was cursing himself after harassing the dithering Senderos and stabbing goalwards for Schwarzer to save one handed in a rare moment of eye-to-eye combat.
And then Walters, having seen Shea's attempted lob into the area hit an outstretched arm, decided against his usual policy of smashing his spot-kick to kingdom come.
Instead, and much to his regret, he slid a low shot towards the keeper's bottom right-hand corner and, once Schwarzer had gone the right way, the big Aussie was always going to save the tame effort.
What followed was a decent attempt to salvage the game as Stoke gave it far more of a go than we had seen in their last three trips to Man City, Swansea and Arsenal.
The relatively early introduction of Cameron Jerome was a welcome sign of attacking intent, while Nzonzi was also among those mucking in after giving every impression earlier in the afternoon that he'd rather be taking an early bath with Etherington.
Visibly upset after sustaining a cut on his nose from Berbatov's flailing arm, he foolishly allowed himself to be distracted by the home crowd's taunts to stop messing around, waving his arm so violently towards them that it very nearly flew off its joints and headed in their direction.
If his reaction was just about forgivable in the circumstances, then what followed certainly wasn't. Still seething over a facial disfigurement which will hardly have his girlfriend running into the arms of the nearest man, he inexplicably threw a hand in Bryan Ruiz's face and was lucky not to see the ref waving a colour matching his mood.
This is not the first time he has shown anger and dissent in the past two months towards somebody, anybody, and some of us still think he was fortunate to escape punishment for an ugly lunge in the Southampton game.
Stoke have enough problems on the road without their potentially best performer chucking his toys at all and sundry.
Much more of this and even he, arguably the club's most popular player, will be jumping the queue for those gallows so many supporters appear to be erecting right now.