Stunning early strikes and steely resolve earn Cottagers rare away winFulham's desperately poor run of league form was laid to rest with an impressive 2-0 victory — a first away win of the season — at Stoke City.
Chris Baird's brilliant brace in the first half was enough for the Cottagers to get out of the drop zone at the end of 2010 and to silence some of the critics of manager Mark Hughes.
The visitors were best from the start and were almost gifted an easy chance as Ryan Shawcross was highly fortunate to get away with a slip as Clint Dempsey looked set to pounce in the opening minutes.
But the Potters were soon punished for a lumbering start as Baird thumped in a half-volley from outside the area that had Asmir Begovic scrambling to tip it onto the post, only for it rebound off the woodwork and into the far corner.
Robert Huth had the chance to fire in an equaliser from a similar position just moments later, but the German centre-back could only fire over despite being afforded the time and space to reshape his body.
Moments later and Fulham were showing more of their clinical streak as Andrew Johnson twisted beyond Andy Wilkinson and Shawcross before being undone by Rory Delap, who had sprinted back to block the ex-Evertonian as he shaped to shoot from close range.
But that danger failed to wake up Stoke's backline, who gave away a cheap free-kick on the edge of the area. And from that set play the Cottagers made it two, and once again it was through the brilliance of Baird, who smashed in after being teed up by Danny Murphy and Johnson, this time leaving Begovic with no chance.
The home fans thought they had pulled one back five minutes later, however, as club record signing Kenwyne Jones leapt above all else to reach Jermaine Pennant's cross, with the back of the net bulging as the ball came to rest. But unfortunately for the Potters, the ball had bounced back off the advertising board behind the goal before deceiving two-thirds of the ground.
However, that chance did not precipitate a glut of opportunities for the home side as they were soon pegged back by some precise passing and pressing by Fulham, who should have done better when Begovic sliced a clearance straight into the path of Simon Davies, but Dickson Etuhu panicked after slinking past Shawcross and hit a tame chipped effort from the edge of the area instead of maintaining his composure and looking for a better opportunity.
Stoke did manage to muster up some movement going forward prior to the break and after Pennant won a corner, captain Shawcross jumped up to head home, only to see his effort cleared off the line by Danny Murphy. It was a chance that summed up the home support's frustrations with their team's performance, and it epitomised the grit that Mark Hughes had sprinkled over his side to add to their class and composure. As the teams headed into the tunnel, there could have been no disputing the gulf in quality.
Tony Pulis kept faith in his first half failures, however, and was nearly rewarded within moments of the restart as a Pennant free-kick deflected off the head of Murphy and seemed destined for the back of the net before bending away from goal at the last moment.
Stop and stare | Baird was an unlikely scorer for the visitors
And Stoke continued to exert pressure of their own over the next 15 minutes, but too often too little was done with plenty of the ball, with Dean Whitehead and Jermaine Pennant both guilty of wasting possession, and it came as little surprise when Pulis did make a change by throwing on Ricardo Fuller for the ineffective Jonathan Walters.
Fulham retreated into a defensive formation, totally surrendering the initiative, which did not play into the hands of the home side — who, aside from Fuller, lacked an ideas man to prise open such a solid defence until the introduction of Sanli Tuncay for the tired Matthew Etherington.
But Stoke's forward forays did pen their opponents back and saw Baird go into the book after a messy tangle with Pennant, while Brede Hangeland was fortunate not to pick up a yellow after clattering into Jones.
Substitute Fuller set-up the home side's first real opportunity from open play as he latched onto a Jones flick-on and rolled the ball back into the box and into the path of Huth, but the German could only fire his effort at Mark Schwarzer in goal.
Fuller then should have pulled one back as he pulled some tricks out of the bag to see himself with an opportunity to shoot from within the six yard area, but the Jamaican was denied by a brilliant tackle from Aaron Hughes.
And Hangeland was on hand to hook away a Pennant shot in the latter stages as Fulham clinged on to victory courtesy of a dominant first half display and a spirited second half performance.