As first games go, this was impressive. Fulham, so bereft of ideas and even application in recent weeks, were more than a much for their illustrious neighbours and must have caused plenty of consternation for Avram Grant in a first half when they took to game to the title contenders. As it was, a second half fightback secured the points for Chelsea, leaving Hodgson to reflect on a promising performance, undermined by a couple of lapses at set-pieces and a debatable penalty decision.
A depleted Chelsea side, without the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, John Terry and Petr Cech, would still have been confident of avoiding the ignominy that befell their 2006 title-winning side, when they slipped to a 1-0 defeat at Craven Cottage, their first reverse in an SW6 derby in some 26 years. But Fulham were well organised, sitting a little deeper than in Sanchez’s tenure to try and counter against Chelsea’s pace, and were bright in attack.
A couple of mazy runs from Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips hinted at the major dangers to the Fulham back line before Moritz Volz, picked in midfield by Hodgson, managed to get Cole going the other way. The England international’s clumsy challenge was deemed worthy of a penalty by referee Mark Halsey and Danny Murphy dispatched the penalty with precision, shooting low into the corner.
Chelsea saw plenty of the ball but made little impression on the Fulham defence in the remainder of the first half. Much of that was down to Murphy’s fine pressing on the visiting midfielder. Michael Ballack was peripheral and Steve Sidwell was so anonymous that he didn’t reappear after the break. The composed Elliot Omozusi, retained after his misfortune at Birmingham a few days ago, had a strong game at right back and was benefitting from having Volz’s experience in front of him, the pair teaming up to nullify Cole when necessary.
Grant, who didn’t seem to see the funny side of an encounter with Billy the Badger (told to get off the pitch by Halsey) as the non-playing staff walked across the Cottage turf after half time, made a tactical alteration at the break that gave Chelsea more of a foothold. He switched to a 4-3-3, asking substitute Jon Obi Mikel to drop anchor in the midfield. Whilst the switch didn’t seem to overly discomfort Fulham, they did lose their lead eight minutes into the second period.
Hodgson was critical of the defending that led to the goal as Fulham were not strong enough to rebel a corner from Juliano Belletti. Alex rose highest to nod the ball back across goal and Salomon Kalou arrived in the six-yard box at just the right time to convert a simple header.
Things got dramatically worse for Fulham nine minutes later. Clint Dempsey was penalised for bringing down Ballack in the penalty area, a decision which Hodgson diplomatically suggested would split those watching. The German midfielder got up to convert the penalty himself and not even the late introduction of David Healy could spur Fulham into salvaging a point. And it is points rather than plaudits that Hodgson’s side need.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Konchesky, Stefanovic, Bocanegra; Davis (Smertin 70), Murphy, Volz (Seol 68), Davies; Kamara (Healy 77), Dempsey. Subs (not used): Warner, Kuqi.
GOAL: Murphy (pen 10).
CHELSEA (4-5-1): Hilario; Belletti, Bridge, Ben-Haim, Alex; Sidwell (Mikel 45), Ballack, Essien, Wright-Phillips (Pizarro 88), J. Cole (Ferreira 90); Kalou. Subs (not used): Taylor, Sinclair.
GOALS: Kalou (54), Ballack (pen 62).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).