Fulham had no answer to Arjen Robben as the Dutch winger run riot at Craven Cottage, starring in a comprehensive 4-1 victory that saw Chelsea regain their two-point advantage at the top of the Premiership table.
Jose Mourinho’s men were in control from the outset and arguably should have led by more than Frank Lampard’s ferocious free-kick at half-time. A sensational strike from Papa Bouba Diop briefly bought Fulham level, but Robben restored Chelsea’s lead within two minutes with another sumptuous goal and late strikes from William Gallas and Tiago underlined the visitors’ clear superiority.
Mourinho made seven changes from the side that beat Newcastle in the League Cup and Fulham almost caught Chelsea caught in the very first minute. Steed Malbranque carried the ball deep into enemy territory and, although he was dispossessed by Ricardo Carvalho, the ball broke invitingly for Andy Cole, whose drive just didn’t dip enough as it whistled over the bar from thirty yards. The in-form Tomasz Radzinski then shot wildly over after Carvalho had mistimed an attempted clearance, but it wasn’t long before Chelsea settled.
A miscommunication between Zat Knight and Zesh Rehman nearly allowed Lampard to head Chelsea in front from close range but Mark Crossley, still preferred to Edwin van der Sar in the Fulham goal, made an excellent stop. John Terry decided to take matters into his own hands embarking on a 50-yard individual run and shooting fractionally over as he closed in on goal. Robben served notice of his own threat by speeding away from Knight but Crossley saved sharply with his feet after narrowing the angle and the Welsh goalkeeper was fortunate to see another Robben effort bounce away off his shoulder after it swerved late.
Chelsea were now piling on significant pressure. Alexei Smertin drilled wide from the edge of the box and Eidur Gudjohnsen also managed to miss the target after Robben had sauntered through the Fulham defence and laid on the simplest of finishes eight yards out. It felt like only a matter of time before the away side broke the deadlock and Lampard rattled a thunderous free-kick into the far corner from nearly 30 yards after Malbranque had brought down Claude Makele.
Fulham were hanging on for dear life in the aftermath of the goal. Diop made a brilliant saving challenge to prevent a Terry header from reaching Gudjohnsen and the hosts survived strong appealed for a penalty when Rehman appeared to handle Lampard’s goalbound shot. Coleman was grateful of the opportunity to have his side regroup during the interval and Fulham were more competitive after the break. They nearly received generous assistance from Petr Cech when he fluffed a clearance straight to Malbranque but Terry headed the midfielder’s finish away from under his own crossbar.
Robben found himself in the clear at the other when Lampard and Gudjohnsen combined to set the flying winger away but Robben’s decision to go for goal rather than square for the unmarked Lampard looked foolish when Crossley dived in to recover the lose ball. Fulham punished Robben’s rare misjudgement ruthlessly when Diop volleyed home a majestic equaliser from fully thirty yards after Terry’s header clear from Radzinski’s cross dropped invitingly for the Senegalese midfielder. It was a fine way to get off the mark in Fulham colours.
The volume level raised inside Craven Cottage, but Robben righted his wrong within a couple of minutes. He skipped away from Knight, Rehman and Mark Pembridge on his way down the left flank before beating Crossley with a firm drive to net his fourth goal in as many games. That appeared to knock the stuffing out of Coleman’s men, who fell further behind when Diop completely missed his kick as he tried to clear a Lampard free-kick and Gallas nodded home. A fabulous fourth goal, scored by substitute Tiago from sixteen yards, after a cheeky Robben backheel emphasised just how big the gulf was between these two sides. There’s no shame in that – on this evidence, Mourinho’s men will win the title at a canter.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Crossley; Volz, Bocanegra, Knight, Rehman; Diop, Pembridge (McBride 72), Malbranque; Boa Morte, Radzinski, Cole. Subs (not used): van der Sar, Rosenior, Legwinski, Hammond.
GOAL: Diop (57).
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Cech, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; Smertin (Tiago 63), Makelele, Lampard; Duff (Kezman 76), Robben, Gudjohnsen (Huth 83). Subs (not used): Cudicini, Bridge.
BOOKED: Makelele, Lampard.
GOALS: Lampard (33), Robben (59), Gallas (73), Tiago (81).
REFEREE: Uriah Rennie (South Yorkshire).