This was the kind of response to Wednesday night’s mauling by the champions that Martin Jol would have craved. Fulham, so meek in their surrender to Manchester United only a few days ago, battled their way to a deserved point in the Boxing Day early kick-off at Stamford Bridge thanks to a clever piece of poaching by Clint Dempsey. Jol was brave enough to make three changes and forced to field Orlando Sa all alone up front, but Fulham were indebted to David Stockdale, whose fine goalkeeping display preserved parity as Chelsea pushed for a late winner.
Andre Vilas-Boas insists he isn’t under pressure, perhaps unaware of Roman Abrahamovic’s intolerance of failure. Sloppiness has slipped into Chelsea’s challenge for the title and these were another two points dropped in a game the home side would have expected to win. They looked likely to add to Juan Mata’s sumptuous curler that arrived just after the break – but as at Wigan and Tottenham recently – defensive lapses and poor finishing allowed their opponents back into a contest that should have been beyond them. If anyone symbolises just how Chelsea have lost their way, it’s £50m man Fernando Torres. The Spaniard rarely threatened, drawing a fine early save from Stockdale, and finished the contest as a spare part wide on the right as Vilas-Boas urged his team forward.
It was a frustrating afternoon for Torres, who failed to seize his opportunity in his first start for two months. Stockdale did superbly to smother the Spanish striker’s volley after he did superbly to control Mata’s perfect pass and shoot in an instant, despite the attentions of Stephen Kelly and the excellent Philippe Senderos. He screwed wretchedly wide after cutting inside from the left and cut a forlorn figure leading the Chelsea line, with Brede Hangeland and Senderos keeping him quiet.
Jol was rewarded for an adventurous team selection, which saw him field Moussa Dembele in central midfield alongside Danny Murphy. The Belgian delivered plenty of his trademark runs forward but got through plenty of defensive work as Fulham smothered Chelsea’s midfield creativity, with his tackling of particular note. Jol also gave Kerim Frei, so impressive in the League Cup meeting between the sides three months ago, a first Premier League start and the Swiss dangerous offered plenty of threat down the Fulham left with pace and guile.
Whilst the Whites were set up to absorb Chelsea’s pressure, they actually created plenty of chances of their own during a rather quiet first half. Dempsey stung Petr Cech’s palms with an early drive from distance that bounced in front of the Czech goalkeeper and he did well to turn it aside. Sa spurned a glorious chance when he climbed above Jose Bosingwa to meet a fine cross from Kelly, only to head high and wide with half the goal to aim at. Dembele, who shot narrowly wide from outside the box, also headed straight at Cech from a promising position after Frei and Bryan Ruiz had linked up impressively down the left.
Chelsea had plenty of possession but struggled to break down their opponents’ stubborn defence. Daniel Sturridge flitted in and out of the contest, sending a shot wide after he had escaped the attentions of John Arne Riise, and Chelsea only perked up after the break. Danny Murphy squandered possession in a dangerous area – not for the first time – and the home side worked the ball wide for Ashley Cole. The full back’s cross reached Torres, who held off Senderos, and created half a yard for his compatriot Mata to curl a fine finish inside the far post.
Fulham’s reply was impressive. Senderos surged forward from centre back and flicked a header out to Ruiz on the right. The Costa Rican skipped away from Ashley Cole and Dempsey crept between Terry and David Luiz to touch in a low cross from barely three yards out. The equaliser did briefly galvanise Chelsea. Stockdale tipped over a rising Sturridge drive and Florent Malouda, who replaced the disappointing Frank Lampard, saw a cheeky backheel from John Terry’s header scrambled off the line. Raul Meireles went close on two occasions and substitute Didier Drogba almost had an immediate impact. Found by a terrific pass from Luiz, Drogba shot straight at Stockdale and then tipped saw his injury-time free-kick tipped over. Fulham had a late chance to sneak all three points through a late chance for Pajtim Kasami, but Jol would have been delighted with his side’s display.
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa (Ferreira 81), A. Cole, Terry, Luiz; Romeu, Meireles, Lampard (Malouda 61); Sturridge (Drogba 70), Mata, Torres. Subs (not used): Turnbull, McEachran, Kalou, Lukaku.
GOAL: Mata (47).
FULHAM (4-1-4-1): Stockdale; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Murphy; Dembele, Ruiz, Dempsey, Frei; Sa (Kasami 82). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Baird, Briggs, Hughes, Etuhu, Sidwell.
GOAL: Dempsey (56).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).