Following our busy January, the fixtures diminished the following month with no cup matches for the Whites, as Martin Jol’s men secured one of each result in our three Barclays Premier League outings.
February began badly for the Whites with a defeat at Craven Cottage, although the fact that we came away from the encounter against Manchester United feeling aggrieved at our 1-0 loss says a lot about the context of the match. We were on the road a week later looking to replicate our opening day rout over Norwich City at Carrow Road but, instead, one of the more dour matches of the campaign ended in a goalless draw. The final game of the month, therefore, was vital against Stoke City, with Fulham snatching a narrow victory over the Potters in SW6 courtesy of Dimitar Berbatov’s goal.
Just a week after the Red Devils had comfortably knocked us out of the FA Cup with Budweiser, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men made the journey south to try and repeat the trick. United were looking to further extend their seven-point lead over rivals City at the top of the table, and they only just managed it in an extremely tight contest by the banks of the Thames. After Fulham had survived a goalmouth scramble within the opening 10 minutes which saw a Mark Schwarzer save, a clearance off the line, and the woodwork hit, we began to exert pressure of our own on the visitors. Firstly, John Arne Riise saw a wonderful dipping effort expertly tipped over the bar by David De Gea, before Bryan Ruiz beat the Spaniard with his shot, only to see it come back off the post. Wayne Rooney was next to be denied by the upright just past the half hour mark, before Chris Baird and Sascha Riether both had efforts saved by De Gea in the second half. Then, with 76 minutes on the clock, Fulham were incredibly unlucky not to take the lead when Ruiz’s header was cleared off the line by Rafael. It proved to be a pivotal moment as Rooney put the visitors ahead minutes later with a neat finish beyond Schwarzer. Fulham heads didn’t drop though and it needed another goalline clearance – this time from Robin van Persie – to deny Philippe Senderos a dramatic injury-time equaliser.
One of our more forgettable games of the season still proved valuable as we left Norfolk with a deserved point. Loan signing Stanislav Manolev was raced to Carrow Road in a taxi for his debut after Sascha Riether was taken ill, while there was also a first appearance for fellow loanee Emmanuel Frimpong. After the returning Berbatov required treatment in the first minute having taken a boot to the face, it was Norwich who spurned the game’s first opportunity when Luciano Becchio forced Schwarzer into a smart stop. Damien Duff saw a couple of efforts blocked, while Canaries captain Russell Martin should have done better with a header. The second half began with an unsuccessful shout for a penalty when Hugo Rodallega felt his effort was handled, before Steve Sidwell drew a good save from home goalkeeper Mark Bunn. Half chances came and went for both teams – with Bradley Johnson wasting the best of them – but neither side could make the breakthrough, with a point apiece a fair outcome.
Berbatov and Schwarzer were the heroes in this early kick-off against Stoke in front of the Sky Sports cameras. The Bulgarian struck a fine winner which would go on to be voted as our Goal of the Season, while Schwarzer saved a second half penalty to preserve our slim advantage. Fulham were the stronger team throughout the contest, although it was the visitors who had the first chance – thankfully, Schwarzer was equal to Peter Crouch’s low effort. Berbatov then fired over after controlling Riether’s cross well, before Ruiz found the back of the net with his hand and was given a yellow card for his troubles. Stoke ‘keeper Asmir Begovic then kept out efforts from Riise and Giorgos Karagounis – the latter denying the Greek a magnificent set-piece goal following an awful slap by Steven Nzonzi on Ruiz. The Whites got the goal their play merited in first-half stoppage time, though, when Berbatov crashed home a magnificent right-foot volley into the postage stamp of the net after the Stoke defence had failed to deal with Riether’s ball in. Crouch then got the better of Senderos in the second half only to be thwarted by Schwarzer once again, before our 40-year-old stopper denied Jonathan Walters from 12 yards after Ashkan Dejagah handled in the area. Berbatov, Sidwell and substitute Mladen Petrić all had chances to extend the lead but, in the end, the solitary goal proved sufficient to ensure we ended the month on a high.