Premier League - Slick Fulham hammer Bolton
Fulham moved up to ninth after a comfortable 3-0 win over Bolton Wanderers at Craven Cottage continued their unbeaten Premier League home run this year.
A brace from Clint Dempsey and a header from Brede Hangeland gave the Whites the three points in a game they largely dominated, putting them on 42 points and effectively securing Premier League football for an 11th consecutive season.
Bolton, meanwhile, lacked confidence and guile and were comprehensively outplayed. Owen Coyle’s side stay eighth, four points clear of Fulham but nine shy of fifth-placed Tottenham in the Europa League slot.
Victory was all the more important given Fulham's difficult run-in, which includes trips to Sunderland and Birmingham - who are fighting for their lives - and tough home clashes with Liverpool and Arsenal.
Both sides were missing key, in-form forwards - Fulham duo Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson only deemed fit for the bench, Bolton’s Daniel Sturridge missing out altogether - but that did not impact on their attacking threat.
Indeed, there were chances galore as Mark Hughes’s team took a deserved lead into half-time after an entertaining first half that saw Bolton create a few opportunities too.
The visitors should have opened the scoring after 45 seconds, but Fabrice Muamba fluffed his lines by firing straight at Mark Schwarzer after he was given a simple finish by Johan Elmander’s backheel.
Fulham responded immediately as Dempsey forced Jussi Jaaskelainen into a smart low save, while former Trotters forward Eidur Gudjohnsen spooned what should have been a straightforward finish up in the air from six yards out.
Soon afterwards Fulham made the breakthrough as, from the resultant corner, Bolton failed to clear their lines. Baird popped up on the right and sent in a cross that was deflected into the path of Dempsey, who showed fine technique to bury his volley from 12 yards.
Bolton launched an attack from the kick-off, with Chung-yong Lee - whose dead-ball delivery was poor all half - drilling a cross shot beyond Elmander and wide of the far post.
But Fulham soon took charge again as Moussa Dembele and Gudjohnsen were denied by Jaaskelainen in quick succession, with the latter a superb tip on to the inside of the post after the Whites forward raced clear of the back four.
The West Londoners - excellent at home but woeful away - were enjoying themselves, Dembele seeing a finish deflected over after one of several eye-catching, one-touch moves.
They were dangerous at set-plays too, as Hangeland and Aaron Hughes headed over from corners, while leading into the break Simon Davies saw a cross-shot spin across goal but beyond his team-mates after a heavy spell of home pressure.
In the second half Fulham picked up where they left off as Dembele saw an effort deflected off the bar, while Zat Knight was alert to put behind for a corner under pressure.
The hosts doubled their lead from that set piece, a clever short routine that saw Simon Davies drill in a low ball that Gudjohnsen backheeled towards goal, Dempsey in the right place to finish from close range.
Bolton offered little in reply - Kevin Davies particularly anonymous - as Dembele fired just wide after a sharp turn, while Simon Davies deserved a goal when he showed great skill to cut inside from the wing and fire a shot that was deflected past the post.
And it was game over with 25 minutes left when Hangeland met a Murphy free-kick with a trademark looping header - although strangely Bolton responded to the third goal by bossing the latter stages.
Suddenly they were getting everything right, particularly from the set pieces which had previously been rotten from both Lee and Matthew Taylor: Tamir Cohen and Elmander headed wide from excellent corners, Gary Cahill doing likewise from a free-kick.
Zamora made an entrance and made a spectacular impact, brilliantly controlling a far-post cross with his chest before firing an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net: unfortunately referee Anthony Taylor mistakenly booked him for handball, denying one of the goals of the season.
Later, Dempsey’s eyes lit up in hope of a hat-trick but it was not to be as he struck wide, while in the final minute Steve Sidwell spooned over after Simon Davies laid up a good chance from 12 yards.
It mattered little as Fulham closed out an easy win to move clear of Stoke on goal difference and maintain their excellent home run in the league - their last defeat at Craven Cottage was on December 26, to lowly West Ham.