There were positive signs for Fulham’s caretaker head coach Scott Parker, but the harsh reality of the Premier League hit home once again as the Whites lost a competitive SW6 derby to Chelsea at Craven Cottage this afternoon.
Parker’s first game in charge since taking over from Claudio Ranieri in midweek ended in the sort of demoralising defeat that has dogged Fulham’s return to the top flight. His side were at least more organised than the shambles that the eccentric Italian oversaw at Southampton and could count themselves unlucky not to have drawn an absorbing encounter with their near neighbours, who are still chasing a Champions’ League place, after Ryan Sessegnon saw a stoppage-time equaliser ruled out by an offside flag.
Plenty would have feared the worst when Gonzalo Higuain, who had already missed a couple of golden chances, converted Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross from the right to put Chelsea ahead but Calum Chambers punished some slack marking to level from a set play eleven minutes later. Fulham’s forgettable campaign – which has now seen them turn to a third man in the dugout – has been blighted by poor defending and they were able to preserve parity for four minutes as a classy curling effort from Jorginho finished off a quick Chelsea counter.
Chelsea were wasteful in front of goal and could have paid the penalty as a feisty and well-drilled Fulham outfit made them sweat right until the end. The Cottagers, now ten points from safety with nine matches left to play and Liverpool and Manchester City still to visit Craven Cottage, are playing for pride – and there were plenty of that in evidence. Visiting goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalega, fresh from refusing to leave the field during the League Cup final, switched between the sublime and ridiculous: superbly saving a volley from Aleksandar Mitrovic after spilling a routine cross.
Sergio Rico kept Fulham in the contest with a couple of outstanding saves from Eden Hazard either side of half time, before standing up well to deny William early in the second half. But it was far from one way traffic with Fulham threatening far more after the hour mark as Tom Cairney found pockets of space in front of the Blues’ back four. He was involved in a move that ended with Mitrovic shooting wide from outside the area before testing Arrizabalaga himself.
The Spanish goalkeeper proved his worth with a smart reaction stop to keep out a last-minute header and Fulham kept pushing for a leveller. Sessegnon thought he’d secured a point from close range in stoppage time, but the celebrations were cruelly cut short by the assistant referee. After the lack of a gameplan on the south coast, this was a significant improvement especially in Parker’s first game in senior management. The caretaker is known to be keen to move into the hotseat and, setting aside the disappointment of another derby defeat, this performance had plenty for him to be pleased about.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Odoi, Bryan, Nortveidt, Ream; McDonald (Anguissa 62), Chambers; Babel (Ayite 71), R. Sessegnon, Cairney (Vietto 80); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Le Marchand, Christie, Seri.
BOOKED: Chambers, McDonald.
GOAL: Chambers (27).
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Emersen, Rudiger, Christensen; Kante, Jorginho (Kovacic 68), Barkley (Loftus-Cheek 78); Willian, E. Hazard (Pedro 74), Higuain. Subs (not used): Cabellero, Luiz, Hudson-Odoi, Giroud.
GOALS: Higuain (20), Jorginho (31).
REFEREE: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire)