Fulham are undoubtedly improving, but they still fine themselves on the wrong end of the Premier League’s fine margins. This defeat, spirited as it was, was ultimately caused by a moment of madness from Antonee Robinson, so impressive in the early part of his career at Craven Cottage. The American full back was sent off for a wild lunge at Cesar Azpilicueta in the closing stages of a first half that Chelsea had dominated. It took Frank Lampard’s side until twelve minutes from time to make their numerical advantage count – Mason Mount, who had earlier struck the crossbar, fired clinically home from twelve yards out after Alphonse Areola had clawed away Ben Chilwell’s cross.
There was plenty to admire about Scott Parker’s gameplan, sticking to his now customary 3-4-3 system, and aiming to both stifle Chelsea’s creative forces and surprise them in the final third. For a while, it looked like it may work. The visitors were largely wasteful in the final third, with Mount their most likely source of a goal. The England international had a low drive from a training ground corner bravely blocked by Harrison Reed and then hit the bar after the right side of the area after a weak Robinson header presented him with a good sight of goal.
Clear cut openings for the Blues, despite their dominance of possession, were few and far between. They looked dangerous from set plays, sending a countless number of headers off target, with Areola making one excellent save from Antonio Rudiger. Hakim Ziyech curled a couple of sighters wide from the edge of the box whilst Areola saved smartly from Olivier Giroud, who cut a frustrated figure for much of the evening – not afforded the sort of service upon which he thrives. Much of the credit for that had to go to Joachim Andersen, former Chelsea academy graduate Ola Aina, Tosin Adarabioya and Kenny Tete, who were immense at the back for Fulham – the Dutchman especially impressive as he was switched to a central defensive role after Robinson had been sent off.
That pivotal red card came at the end of Fulham’s most positive spell of the game. They probably should have been in front following the sort of sweeping move that probably originated in Slavisa Jokanovic’s playbook. Areola got things movement with a quick throw-out, Lookman and Robinson worked a quick one-two down the left before the nippy winger produced a peach of pass to play in Tete down the opposite flank. Just when you thought he would pull the trigger, Tete instead slipped a sumptuous ball into Cavaleiro, whose miss from ten yards with the goal gaping was glaring. He sent it high into the Putney off his right foot after getting into a tangle – Tete’s furious reaction underlining that this was the sort of chance Fulham couldn’t afford to pass up.
The gravity of that miss was highlighted moments later when Robinson dived in recklessly to try and win a 50-50 against Azpilicueta high up on the Fulham left flank. The American full back didn’t come close to winning the ball and, whilst the contact was never as great as the experienced Chelsea full back suggested, Peter Bankes’ decision to quickly reach for red was justified. The brainless nature of the tackle was even more baffling as Fulham were in no immediate danger and Robinson was beginning to win his duel against the ageing Spaniard.
Parker opted against a drastic reshuffle at half-time, shifting Bobby Decordova-Reid back to right wing back and shuffling Aina across to the left. It very nearly worked. Fulham defended diligently, trying to limit space on the edge or inside their penalty area, whilst Chelsea probed patiently, working the ball from side to side. They continued to threaten from set plays but there was very little danger in open play – Giroud scuffed the best opening just before he was substituted, but he appeared to offside.
His replacement Tammy Abraham almost made an immediate impact, drifting between Tete and Adarabioyo to head Christian Pulisic’s devlish cross into the arms of Areola. From the other end, Ziyech dug out a delightful ball that curved agonisingly away from Abraham and the late arriving Pulisic, although there were mere milimetres in it. Fulham’s preoccupation at this point was preserving parity but they still carved out openings of their own – Aina almost recreating his West Brom rocket with a surging run and shot, before a dozy dash from his line by Edouard Mendy, almost gave Cavaleiro a chance but his shot was blocked by Thiago Silva and Harrison Reed’s subsequent curler was easily fielded by the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Lampard threw on Callum Hudson-Odoi and Timo Werner as he searched for elusive penetration, although the breakthrough arrived almost out of nothing. Hudson-Odoi did well on the right angle of the Fulham box and switched the play for Chilwell, who elected not to shoot, and dug out a cross that had Areola backpedalling. He pushed the ball away from under his own crossbar but the clearance lacked his usual conviction and Mount, who has been searching for more goals to add his all-round game, gleefully crashed home the winner on the volley.
The chances of Fulham recovering a point seemed remote but Parker’s charges gave it a good go. They forced a couple of promising set plays but couldn’t orchestrate a real opening and it was actually Chelsea who spurned good chances to put the contest to bed. Azipiicueta blazed high into the Putney End when he implausibly found himself with acres of space in the Fulham box before Werner offered an indication of his lack of confidence, shooting horribly wide when released into the inside left channel by a lovely Mount pass.
On an afternoon when West Brom recorded a fine win at Wolves and Brighton triumphed at Leeds, this defeat was a bitter pill to swallow for Parker. The endeavour and application is there – but coming so close to a point against all the odds somehow hurts even more.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina (Bryan 83), Andersen, Adarabioyo; Tete, Robinson, Reed, Anguissa; Decordova-Reid (Kamara 83), Lookman, Cavaleiro (Onomah 79). Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Ream, Odoi, Kebano.
BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Lookman.
SENT OFF: Robinson.
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta, Chilwell, Rudiger, Thiago Silva; Jorginho (Abraham 65), Kovacic, Mount; Ziyech (Hudson-Odoi 75), Pulisic, Giroud (Werner 75). Subs (not used): Arrizabalaga, James, Zouma, Emerson, Gilmour, Havertz.
BOOKED: Ziyech, Thiago Silva.
GOAL: Mount (78).
REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Jarred Gillett (Australia).