For about 70 minutes, it looked like Fulham might spring an almighty surprise at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Leading through Zoltan Gera’s early goal, Roy Hodgson’s side were the model of discipline and determination in a first half performance that demonstrated just how far Fulham have come under his leadership. Chelsea were unable to overcome a well-organised Fulham midfield in the first half, and although they were much improved after half time, rarely tested Mark Schwarzer until a few frantic minutes late on produced the two crucial match-turning moments.
Carlo Ancelotti made as many as six changes to the Chelsea side that had drawn at Birmingham on Boxing Day as he sought to rediscover the form that had propelled his side to the top of the table. But their defensive vulnerability was on view inside the first four minutes as Paul Konchesky exploited the narrow midfield diamond that the Italian favours. The Fulham full back sprinted into space down the left flank and his cross caused confusion in the Chelsea box. Neither John Terry or Petr Cech were particularly commanding and both were culpable as Bobby Zamora nodded the ball across goal for Gera to guide it home commendably with his back to goal.
Chelsea had plenty of possession but struggled to penetrate the Fulham backline. That was all the more remarkable considering that Chris Smalling was starting his first Premier League game in place of the injured Brede Hangeland. Time and time again, the twenty year-old headed the ball confidently clear of danger and the home side were restricted to frustrated long shots. Lampard and Joe Cole looked dangerous, but spurned their shooting opportunities from outside the box, and Saloman Kalou screwed a good chance wide.
Ancelotti had obviously read the riot act to his players at the break and they certainly came out with much more purpose and an increased tempo. Fulham still had the clearest chance, though, and Zamora, involved in a right old tussle with his old Senrab team-mate Terry, might have felt he should have done better having latched onto a weak backpass from Ricardo Carvalho. With the angle against him, Zamora went for the near post where Cech made a sprawling save.
Up the other end, Drogba had been a persistent irritant, more due to his continuing habit of throwing himself to the ground under the slightest of contact, and Fulham’s back four had done well to frustrate the Ivorian in his final appearance before he jetted off to Angola for the Africa Cup of Nations. Drogba gave a glimpse of his immense talent, with a curling shot on the turn that Schwarzer did splendidly to turn aside, before scoring the equaliser.
John Pantsil had been superb at right back for Fulham and plenty of people around me feared the worse when he was forced off with a twisted knee. That meant Chris Baird had to be switched into the full back position, something which hadn’t met with the best results under Lawrie Sanchez. Little blame could be attached to the Northern Irish international, outstanding until then in central midfield, for the Chelsea equaliser. Branislav Ivanovic, brought on as a substitute, hung over a high cross which Drogba arrived late to head in at the back post.
That was deflating enough but it proved to be only half the story. Daniel Sturridge drove into the box and Schwarzer stopped his optimistic shot from the angle, only for the ball to trickle across the goal. In a moment that seemed to last for an eternity, Smalling tried to hook the ball clear after it struck his shins, but sent it back into the net via the far post. It was exceptionally harsh on the young man and no amount of post-match consolation from Mike Kelly could comfort him.
Fulham had fought hard and still carried a threat as the game entered the closing minutes. They forced a succession of corners and substitutes Bjorn Helge Riise and Andy Johnson, returning from a long injury lay-off, looked lively but it was the home side who went the closest to scoring again when Kalou hit the crossbar with a rising drive from just outside the box. The finality of defeat seemed harsh, but Fulham still head into the New Year in the top half and with at least two more European nights to look forward to.
CHELSEA (4-4-2): Cech; Ferreira (Ivanovic 64), Zhirkov (A. Cole 84), Terry, Carvalho; Ballack, Lampard, J. Cole, Mikel (Sturridge 70); Drogba, Kalou. Subs (not used): Hilario, Alex, Belletti, Kakuta.
GOALS: Drogba (73), Smalling (o.g. 75).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Etuhu 66), Konchesky, Hughes, Smalling; Baird, Murphy, Duff (Riise 85), Dempsey; Gera (A. Johnson 71); Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kallio, Greening, Nevland.
GOAL: Gera (4).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (Birmingham).