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A sumptuous volley from striker Dimitar Berbatov was enough to settle victory for Fulham against Stoke City at Craven Cottage.
Berbatov struck his ninth Barclays Premier League goal of the season on the stroke of half-time after the hosts had dominated possession without truly testing Asmir Begovic. Fulham were grateful, however, to Mark Schwarzer for denying Jonathan Walters from the penalty spot in the second half as the Londoners moved to within a point of the Potters in the Premier League table.
Schwarzer was in the thick of it early on when Peter Crouch dropped deep before threading a ball into the run of Walters, who forced the Australian into a smart low save, but Fulham then took control of the remainder of the first half with Berbatov firing over the crossbar from six yards after being picked out by the returning Sascha Riether.
Bryan Ruiz had the ball in the back of the net after 11 minutes but was cautioned by referee Lee Probert for using his hand to convert Damien Duff's free-kick, while John Arne Riise forced a decent save out of Begovic as he powered in from the left before rifling in a low shot.
Steven Nzonzi was then booked for shoving Ruiz in the face, and was indebted to Begovic for tipping Giorgos Karagounis's resulting free-kick over the bar.
Martin Jol's side almost grabbed the goal their opening 45 minutes of play deserved when Steve Sidwell's long-range effort flew just wide of Begovic's right-hand post.
But that goal came in first-half stoppage time as Ashkan Dejagah and Riether combined down the left and after Riether's cross was headed into the path of Berbatov by Robert Huth the former Manchester United front man smashed ina volley of the highest quality.
The visitors were presented with a great opportunity to equalise 10 minutes into a more evenly balanced second half. Probert awarded a penalty as Dejagah blocked debutant Brek Shea's cross with his arm but Walters's spot-kick was easily kept out by Schwarzer.
Berbatov almost doubled his tally with another fantastic effort when he flicked the ball away from two defenders before firing in another volley, but this time Begovic was able to parry it away.
Brek Shea, a first-half introduction for the injured Matthew Etherington, then came close with a half-volley as Stoke started to fight their way back into the match.
Fulham responded well to Stoke's attempts to fashion an equaliser and started to play some football of their own once again. Karagounis worked a short corner routine with Dejagah before the former Panathinaikos midfielder arrowed a shot just over the crossbar.
Ruiz then wriggled his way into the box before his cross found its way to Sidwell, whose shot was deflected around the post for Fulham's ninth corner of the game.
Nothing came of the set-piece but Fulham survived to win their second Barclays Premier League match since New Year's Day.
Fulham manager Martin Jol: “Dimitar [Berbatov] certainly made a difference today. Dimitar always scores between 15-25 goals and it would be silly to think he won't score 15-20 goals for us and that is what I always had in mind. [He celebrated his goal with me] Because he scored from a volley and I told him a few months ago he doesn't score any volleys any more. He used to do that all the time, he tries to prove a point."
"Overall, if you saw the first half, we were the better team. It is always difficult against them and they changed their system and have all these big guys up front. It is not easy, for us or a lot of other teams. We should have scored a second goal but we didn't and in the end they could have punished us for the fact that we only scored one goal, but Mark Schwarzer saved the day for us."
Stoke City manager Tony Pulis: "I think everyone in the league who hasn't got 40 points will be [looking over their shoulders]. That is the way it is. The league is a relentless league and every game is a tough game as we found out again today.
"The first half was a very, very dead game and the only bit of quality was Berbatov's. Personally, I think Fulham did not cause us many problems in the second half. We needed to score the penalty but we didn't. If we score the penalty then it is a different game. We have been closer in away games this year and have had opportunities and chances that we haven't taken."
|02 Mar 2013||v Sunderland (A)|
|17 Mar 2013||v Spurs (A)|
|01 Apr 2013||v QPR (H)|
|07 Apr 2013||v Newcastle (A)|
|13 Apr 2013||v Aston Villa (A)|
|17 Apr 2013||v Chelsea (H)|