Fulham 3 Stoke 0
The man now known in London as well as Rome as the Little Aeroplane brought down Coca-Cola Championship high-flyers Stoke to steer Fulham through to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
On-loan Italian Vincenzo Montella scored one goal and had a foot in two others as Chris Coleman’s Cottagers comfortably checked an aerial barrage by the Potters to rack up their 10th consecutive match without defeat.
Although seven of those games were draws Fulham again showed they are an established force in the Barclays Premiership with bright, inventive play on the counter-attack and some stoic defending when needed – even though they are still missing several key players.
But on the day they completed the signing of midfielder Alexei Smertin from Dinamo Moscow, adding to three previous arrivals this month in Montella, Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies, the Craven Cottage fans still had only one name on their lips.
Montella had scored three times in four games coming off the substitutes’ bench and on his first start – in place of suspended Heidar Helguson – the 32-year-old on-loan Roma striker, nicknamed “L’Aeroplanino” by supporters at the Stadio delle Alpi, was soon showing off his trademark goal celebration.
He had take-off as early as the 12th minute when he landed his fourth goal for Fulham – and he was to help lay on further efforts for Brian McBride six minutes before the break and Tomasz Radzinski seven minutes after it.
His opener came from a short-corner routine featuring winger Wayne Routledge, whose cross produced a header by Radzinski which was athletically kept out by Stoke goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.
But Radzinski was onto the rebound in a flash and steered the ball through a crowded six-yard box for Montella to sweep in.
Stoke made Fulham work for their rewards. Tony Pulis’ team of loanees and veterans were always physically up for the battle and sent in a succession of high balls that had the home side’s central defenders always on their toes.
But a second Fulham goal – McBride’s 10th of the season – seemed to seal their fate in the 39th minute.
Montella was at the heart of it, chesting the ball down and slipping it through for the American to run on and apply a clinical finish.
Fulham, who squeezed through 4-3 in a replay against Leicester in the third round, had goalkeeper Antti Niemi back in the squad after a neck injury – but Jan Lastuvka kept the starting place.
There was nothing for either keeper to do in the opening scrappy 12 minutes but then Montella struck – after an error by Dominic Matteo let in Liam Rosenior to force a corner.
Stoke were lucky not to be 2-0 behind a couple of minutes later when Michael Brown’s low drive from 25 yards fizzed just wide with Simonsen well beaten.
Skipper Brown and Moritz Volz bossed the midfield for Fulham early on with a combination of drive and energy while Montella showed some silky touches up front.
But Stoke captain Michael Duberry almost levelled matters in the 20th minute when Matteo swung in a free-kick from the right and the former Leeds star planted his header just wide after outjumping the home defence.
Radzinski twice skewered shots off target as Fulham worked to re-establish their authority but until McBride’s goal there was enough strength in Stoke’s performance to maintain hope among their 3,000 or so travelling fans congregated behind the Cottage End goal.
Lee Martin, on loan from Manchester United, had a chance to make a name for Stoke early in the second half but steered an easy opportunity straight into Lastuvka’s grateful arms.
Stoke paid the penalty when Montella’s simple square pass to Volz was slipped through by the industrious German for Radzinski to clip home a well deserved goal for 3-0 in the 52nd minute.
And although Stoke battled hard to the finish without really testing Lastuvka, the hosts – who replaced Montella with American Clint Dempsey before the hour mark – could have added several more.