Dimitar Berbatov scored a first-half brace as Fulham comfortably beat West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the Premier League at Craven Cottage.
The enduring class of Berbatov gave the hosts the lead with a little over half an hour gone but the first-half dismissal of Peter Odemwingie proved pivotal as Fulham were to run out comfortable winners against the hitherto undefeated Baggies.
The Bulgarian added to his personal haul in first-half stoppage time from the penalty spot following a foul on Alexander Kacaniklic, and the second half – bar an odd chance here and there for the visitors - turned into somewhat of a procession for the Cottagers.
But just as it looked like the visitors were to see out the second half without conceding, Steve Sidwell marked his 300th league appearance with a close range volley after Hugo Rodallega’s header came off the bar.
Fulham's encouraging opening to the season - a five-goal demolition of Norwich – was soon tempered by three successive losses and the departures of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele to Tottenham.
Those losses, which included a League Cup defeat at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday, were reminiscent of a club very much in transition. In fact, of the of the 48 Premier League goals Fulham scored last season, 36 of them were scored by players no longer at the club.
Martin Jol was looking to stop the rot against the Baggies - who he played for between 1982 and 1984, making 67 appearances - but Steve Clarke’s men made the trip to Craven Cottage on the back of their best start to a top flight season since 1978-79.
However, Fulham have only lost once at the Cottage this calendar year and with marquee summer signing Berbatov making a first start, the hosts threatened as early as the third minute.
Sascha Riether capitalised on some space behind the visiting defence to find Berbatov at the near post. Under pressure, though, the Bulgarian’s effort was tame and offered little threat to the goal of Ben Foster.
That early opportunity turned out to be a rare commodity in a half where clear-cut chances were at a premium, with the visitors happy to sit back and invite their hosts onto them. In fact, much of the play was concentrated on the wings.
With Shane Long cutting an isolated figure up front, the Baggies were restricted to strikes from distance for much of the first period – James Morrison’s was the pick of the bunch but Mark Schwarzer dealt with the vicious effort rather comfortably.
Kacaniklic and Billy Jones were in a ferocious battle down the left-hand side of the pitch but it was the Swede who was to provide two telling contributions either side of Odemwingie’s pointless 38th minute sending off for lashing out at Riether.
The former Helsingborgs man drove in from the left, beat two players and found Berbatov inside the box. In space, the Bulgarian opened his body and bent a glorious effort into the top corner.
Kacaniklic then drew the foul inside the box from Jones in first-half stoppage time for Berbatov to add a second and make the visitors' second-half task all the harder.
With a two-goal lead and a numerical advantage, Fulham were far less intense come the second period and the slowing in tempo suited the Baggies, who managed to keep their hosts at arm’s length while threatening on the break.
The half-time introduction of Romelu Lukaku gave West Brom a cutting edge up front and he illustrated the fragility of a two-goal advantage when he broke forward, cut inside and drew a smart save from Schwarzer.
But Fulham responded in kind and if it were not for the sharp reflexes of Ben Foster – who made a fantastic double save from Steve Sidwell and then Damien Duff - the score could and probably should have been more.
Jones, despite giving away the penalty, was probably Wes Brom’s standout player and he could have made it a tense finish with five minutes remaining but having stolen in at the back post, his effort was tame and Schwarzer claimed.
It was left to Sidwell to complete the scoring from close range in the last minute of normal time to put added gloss on an already polished performance.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Dimitar Berbatov – Fulham: a brace on his full debut with some magical touches thrown in alongside some dogged tracking back. A truly incredible performance.
FULHAM: Schwarzer 7, Riise 7, Hangeland 6, Baird 6, Hughes 6, Riether 7, Sidwell 7, Duff 7, Kacaniklic 8, Berbatov 9, Rodallega 7. Subs: Kasami 6, Smith 6.
WBA: Foster 8, Jones 7, McAuley 6, Olsson 5, Ridgewell 5, Mulumbu 5, Yacob 5; Odemwingie 2, Morrison 6, Fortune 6, Long 4. Subs: Lukaku 7, Rosenberg 6, Brunt 6.
- Dimitar Berbatov