You can’t say enough about the job Roy Hodgson’s done at Fulham. We hassled, harried and battled with Chelsea today – a superior outfit who bossed the second half – and got our reward by the end of a pulsating ninety minutes. Words can’t describe how brilliant Dempsey’s late leap was: he rose brilliantly (for a moment I feared that he and Aaron Hughes might have got in each other way) and guided his header fantastically into the far corner.
Dempsey’s got plenty of critics but this performance typified everything that makes Demspey a real threat. He’s deadly in the penalty area – he punished some slack defending when a Simon Davies free-kick caused all sorts of chaos in the Chelsea box – and his heading is severely underrated. Perhaps it won’t be next year. He also linked the play beautifully, had some wonderful touches, beat a few players and played some great passes.
Just for our endeavour alone we deserved a point even if we had to man the barracades at time during the second half. The atmosphere at the Cottage was electric – the Hammersmith End set the tone with a few rousing renditions of ‘stick the Blue flag up your …’ and, to be fair, to the usually quiet Riverside they got stuck in too. Just for Chelsea’s cheek in having a pop at our support as they moved in front thanks to two Lampard strikes, the late equaliser was very, very sweet indeed.
It rather surprised me that Scolari started with just Didier Drogba up front, but our joy was rather shortlived as the Brazilian acted decisively and brought Nicolas Anelka on after half an hour. Drogba had already missed a couple of presentable chances before Anelka nearly scored with his first touch, his powerful drive thudding away from danger off Mark Schwarzer’s knee. The big Australian did well to deny Lampard with a sprawling save at his near post just before the break.
The pressure continued after the interval and you got the feeling that it was only a matter of time before our defence was breeched. Brede Hangeland, who was as solid as ever at the back having recovered from a nasty bout of flu and Dickson Etuhu, making his first start for the club, were both forced to make desperate last-ditch tackles but a horrible mix-up between Hughes and Schwarzer gifted Lampard the equaliser. It looked like Hughes might be able to hold off Drogba and clear the ball away but once Schwarzer came out and the ball spilled out to Lampard, who had the simplest of finishes into an empty net.
Drogba hit another rising drive over the bar after reaching a glorious crosfield pass by Lampard, who was beginning to run the show in midfield, and Joe Cole – who was surprisingly withdrawn by Scolari with more than a quarter of an hour to go brought the best out of Schwarzer.
To our credit, Fulham were not content to sit back and soak up the pressure. We looked to restore our lead and there would have been no more popular goalscorer than John Pantsil, who delivered another whole-hearted and energetic performance from right back. He cut inside from the right flank and, with nothing else on, let rip from fully thirty yards and it drifted just wide with Cech a worried man.
Chelsea’s second – a trademark Lampard free-kick that looked a little soft both in its award and its eventual concession – might have actually brought two or three more. But our spirit took us up the field and Demspey soared high enough to head Fulham level. We might have had a penalty, although the referee gave us nothing all afternoon, but Schwarzer redeemed himself for being wrongfooted by Lampard’s free-kick by denying a blistering injury-time shot from Ashley Cole and a combination of Hughes and Hangeland smothered the follow-up from Lampard.
A few words on some of the players who seem to be consistently coming in for criticism. Simon Davies seems to be struggling for confidence and, at times this afternoon, looked very nervous, which was unusual for someone of his calibre. He did produce two quality deliveries for Dempsey’s goals but from open play offered very little. His attempt to control a ball with his shoulder twice – the first presented the ball back to Chelsea and the second got in the way of Murphy on the edge of the box – typified his jittery performance.
It was always going to be tough for Zamora up there today against quality defenders but he had very little joy from the referee and was often on the frindges of the play, running into the channels and trying to cross the ball rather than hovering in the penalty area waiting to connect with a cross. Nevland offered something different when he came up, but I remain uncovinced as to whether he’d be able to play with Johnson as a front two.
For tonight, we should just toast that point – which looked ever so unlikely with two minutes left.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Etuhu (Andreasen 78), Murphy (Baird 90), Dempsey, Davies; A. Johnson, Zamora (Nevland 78). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Kallio, Gray.
GOALS: Dempsey (10, 89).
CHELSEA (4-5-1): Cech; Bosingwa, A. Cole, Ivanovic, Alex (Carvalho 37); Mikel, Deco, Lampard, J. Cole (Kalou 72), Malouda (Anelka 30); Drogba. Subs (not used): Cudicini, Ballack, Ferreira, Belletti.
BOOKED: Drogba, Bosingwa.
GOALS: Lampard (50, 72).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)