Club Focus – Stoke – Sorry Stoke make it easy for Fulham

Fulham completed a league double over Stoke in symmetrical fashion at Craven Cottage on Saturday, with an identical scoreline to their December victory at the Britannia Stadium. Odds of 20-1 were available before the game on fisticuffs breaking out between the sides’ feuding Welsh managers, but in the match itself there was precious little fight in any aspect of Stoke’s performance.

Tony Pulis made just one change to the side that vanquished Bolton last Saturday, with Danny Collins replacing the injured Danny Higginbotham at left back. Yet strangely, the team that so comprehensively outplayed the high-flying Trotters were limp and lifeless in defeat to Mark Hughes’ organised Fulham outfit.

The players who proved pivotal in that Bolton victory were not at the races on Saturday, and the flaws that Stoke had been able to successfully mask a week ago were ruthlessly exposed in West London. Rory Delap yet again showed that he is wasted on the right wing, offering nothing in attack and failing to provide cover to right back Andy Wilkinson in defence. The lack of balance that accompanied Delap’s presence on the right ramped up the pressure on Matthew Etherington as the only attack-minded creative threat in midfield.

Tuncay, who was rampant against Bolton, was totally anonymous at Craven Cottage – a lack of service and support effectively neutering his influence. With no Jermaine Pennant or Ricardo Fuller in the side, Stoke created precious few chances beyond an early flurry of set pieces, and once Fulham went ahead – Andy Johnson leaving Ryan Shawcross for dead before squaring for Clint Dempsey to score – the result was never in doubt. Of course, the defeat was rubber-stamped when Shawcross rounded off a miserable afternoon by manhandling Dempsey in the penalty area as the last defender, leaving referee Stuart Attwell no option but to dismiss him. The USA international converted the resulting penalty himself, and Pulis’ response was a curious one; in opting to switch to a narrow 4-3-2 formation, the Potters’ boss removed the last remnants of creativity from his team, withdrawing Tuncay and Matthew Etherington and replacing them with new signing John Carew and workmanlike midfielder Glenn Whelan. With no line of supply, Carew had little chance of making an impact beyond vainly trying to latch onto Delap’s long throws. Pulis’ substitutions and change of formation effectively left his players defending a two goal deficit.

It seems that Stoke are in a state of flux at the moment, with significant incomings and outgoings expected before the transfer window slams shut. It seems a strange time of the season to be ringing the drastic changes Pulis seems determined to effect, especially given that a European spot does not seem too far beyond the Potters’ reach. It is hard to say whether it should be of comfort or concern to the Midlanders that their problems against Fulham were almost entirely self-inflicted. The Stoke manager will be hoping that Saturday’s result is merely a blip rather than evidence of a deeper malaise.

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