It was the disappointment that really hurt. We always have a great day when we go to Chelsea, partly I imagine because many long-suffering Fulham fans weren’t sure that we’d ever play them on a regular basis again. As usual, there was a noisy following to roar the Whites on – and for a few fleeting first-half minutes – it seemed that we might be able to get something out of the game. Ultimately, a couple of defensive mistakes cost us but we’ll have the memory of a brilliant finish from Erik Nevland to look back on I suppose.
It looked ominous from the first whistle. Chelsea went in front as many people around me were still taking their seats. Zoltan Gera played a hopeless ball forward and a quick exchange of one-touch passes had Chelsea streaming forward. Anelka found Drogba, who hadn’t resorted to rolling around unfortunately, and the Ivorian played a cute little ball that left Hangeland stretching desperately in vain as Anelka converted a great chance with ease. What galled me the most was the fact that we didn’t get close to putting in a tackle throughout the entire move. The sight of Danny Murphy sprinting into his own penalty area in an attempt to shackle Anelka was heartbreaking.
Deflation turned to elation just three minutes later. Murphy, back in his element as a cunning midfield playmaker, unlocked the Chelsea defence with a brilliant ball through the middle. Their back line was caught horribly square – Ashley Cole tried gamely to push up – and Erik Nevland raced onto the through ball. He didn’t have many options and the angle seemed tight but the power of his finish saw his shot burst through Cech and roll into the corner. It wasn’t as picture perfect as his goal at Reading last season but it was just as glorious. The Norweigan was desperate to impress, having finally been given an opportunity to prove what he could do from the start.
Just as Fulham were started to settle and play some football, we conceded another sloppy goal. It stemmed from a throw in down the left that Nevland couldn’t win in the air. The ball broke favourably to Anelka who played Drogba down the right. The Ivorian got a little lucky as his cross missed Anelka but John Pantsil lost his footing as he tried to clear and Florent Malouda, looking revitalised under Guus Hiddink, finished with aplomb at the far post. Ten minutes in and we’d already had three goals. Any thoughts of Fulham shutting up shop at the Bridge were well wide of the mark.
The Whites weren’t finished mind you. Although Chelsea had more of the ball and the play, Fulham had three good chances before the half time whistle. Bobby Zamora headed wide from a decent position after outjumping John Terry, Nevland made another chance for himself on the edge of the box – volleying over the bar after Clint Dempsey’s attempt to chest the ball down saw it blown up in the air. Gera nearly equalised just before the break, too, but his deflected shot flew just over the bar.
Injuries played another big part in the way we largely failed to carry a threat to Chelsea in the second half. Had Terry not nobbled Nevland with a crude challenge in the middle of the first half, the Norweigan might have caused a few more problems for the Blues defence. He might not be the quickest but his intelligence certainly can’t be questioned and he must be the coolest finisher at the club. Worryingly, he looked close to tears when he went off – hopefully, the injury’s nothing more serious than the dead leg the papers have reported this morning.
Chelsea could have further clear by the break too. Lampard saw a shot well blocked by Aaron Hughes and the defence had to be on their guard to soak up a period of Chelsea pressure at the end of the first half. Perhaps with an eye on the second leg against Barcelona, neither Alex or Essien reappeared for the second half but neither of their replacements, Ballack or Ivanovic were cautioned for entering the field of play before being given permission by the fourth official or the referee.
It was immensely frustrating that the crucial third goal came when Kamara, who ran around a lot but was largely ineffective, and Konchesky looked like they might recreate one of the chances they failed to put away at the Bridge. The left back had pushed forward and looked like he might burst onto the ball on the edge of the box and the rebound just wouldn’t fall kindly for Danny Murphy. Chelsea swept up field at pace, Anelka supply a lovely ball for Drogba, who timely his run beautifully and dropped his shoulder to beat Schwarzer before finishing with ease.
Fulham offered precious little after that. Hodgson had it right afterwards when he said the rest of the game was a battle not to be embarassed. Lampard’s fierce free-kick was well tipped over by Schwarzer and Drogba perhaps should have profited from close range after Konchesky committed himself too early against the lively Drogba. Our threat was almost as sporadic as Chelsea’s singing – Zamora looked terribly tentative when he bore down on Cech before his afternoon was brought to a premature end by another injury.
With victories for West Ham, Manchester City and Tottenham, this might well be remembered as the day our European dream died. Sitting in ninth place now on goal difference, reaching seventh is still conceivable but it would require a fine end to the season.
CHELSEA (4-4-2): Cech; Bosingwa, A. Cole, Alex (Ivanovic 45), Terry; Essien (Ballack 45), Lampard, Mikel, Malouda; Droga (Di Santo 84), Anelka. Subs (not used): Hilario, Kalou, Belletti, Mancienne.
GOALS: Anelka (1), Malouda (10), Drogba (53).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora (Dacourt 76), Nevland (Kamara 35). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Smalling, Gray.
GOAL: Nevland (4).
REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).