Looking at the scoreline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this SW6 derby proved to be a Sunday lunchtime stroll for Chelsea. It looked like it could have been when Pedro capitalised on a shocking defensive error to give the home side an early lead, but you could tell from the regularity of Maurizio Sarri’s second half prowling that their slender advantage was far from comfortable. Claudio Ranieri couldn’t claim a point on his return to Stamford Bridge, but the hosts needed the cushion of a late Reuben Loftus-Cheek strike to be certain of all three points.
Fulham began with an early demonstration of their ambition with Cyrus Christie, who had an excellent game in shackling Eden Hazard, galloping into space down the right flank and firing a speculative shot towards the far corner. It lacked power and Kepa Arrizabalaga was able to easily get down and gather it in. The Whites, roared on by a raucous travelling support, soon shot themselves in the foot, however, with Denis Odoi and Jean-Michael Seri getting in a terrible mess in central midfield. Seri failed to release a pass from the Belgian defender swiftly enough, allowing N’Golo Kante to swoop in, sweep up field and play the perfect pass for Pedro, who ghosted inside Alfie Mawson and measured a perfect finish inside the far post.
The visitors could have been overwhelmed by the grievous nature of the goal they had conceded with just four minutes on the clock, but they continued to patiently probe in front of the Chelsea defence. Tom Cairney created an opening for Calum Chambers, who was superb throughout in the holding midfield role again, but the Arsenal loanee’s drive from distance was straight at Kepa. At the other end, Sergio Rico had another fine game in the Fulham goal – making two splendid reaction saves from Oliver Giroud as the first half drew to a close to keep his side in the contest.
Ranieri was decisive at half time and withdrew Stefan Johansen and Ryan Sessegnon in favour of Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara. Although an early opening came the way of Pedro, Fulham’s switch of both personnel and system enlivened them as an attacking force. Antonio Rudiger almost sent Christie’s cross into his own goal as he tried to keep it away from Aleksandar Mitrovic, before Kepa somehow kept out Chambers’ near post header from the ensuing corner. It was clearly not going to be Chambers day, when after a beautiful drag back on the edge of the box, he thumped an effort towards the far corner that was superbly pawed away by the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Rico did brilliantly to keep out an effort from Hazard that had taken a wicked deflection but he had no chance with the clinching goal, scored by substitute Loftus-Cheek, that settled the contest eight minutes from time. It owed much to Hazard ghosting away from a clutch of Fulham defenders after some excellent approach play on the edge of the box. The Belgian picked the perfect time to release Loftus-Cheek, who had escaped the attentions of Maxime Le Marchand, and the England international drove home at the near post.
Fulham continued to push forward in added time, but couldn’t find a route back into the contest despite efforts from Mawson, Christie and Kamara going close. Ranieri declared himself pleased with his side’s fight as well as their reaction to his half-time changes, but he will know that Fulham’s fate is highly unlikely to be settled by these sort of results and more in the fixtures like Wednesday’s, at home against another of his former clubs, Leicester City.
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Alonso (Zappacosta 78), Rüdiger, David Luiz; Kanté, Jorginho, Kovacic (Loftus-Cheek 67); Pedro, Hazard, Giroud (Morata 70). Subs (not used): Caballero, Christensen, Fàbregas, Willian.
BOOKED: Azpilicueta, Morata.
GOALS: Pedro (4), Loftus-Cheek (82).
FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Seri; Chambers, Johansen (Ayite 45); Cairney (Kebano 76); Mitrovic, R. Sessegnon (Kamara 45). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Cisse.
REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).