Chelsea 2-1 Fulham – Ragged Chelsea stop the rot, just

CHELSEA 2
Drogba 73, Smalling (og) 75

FULHAM 1
Gera 4

Two goals in three second half minutes rescued a below par Chelsea from the prospect of shedding more festive points. After having their lead at the top of the Premier League slashed to just two points, the Blues lost an early lead to neighbours Fulham, when Zoltan Gera hooked home a loose ball inside the Chelsea six-yard box after only four minutes.

Carlo Ancelotti chose to make six changes from the Boxing Day stalemate at Birmingham, yet it was two of his fresh faces, Paulo Ferreira and Yuri Zhirkov, who were caught cold – conspiring to make a mess of a Paul Konchesky cross to present Hungarian Gera with an opportunity to open the scoring. Fulham fell back into line as the inevitable Chelsea pressure increased, but the hosts lacked initiative and ideas, and their ample midfield possession was never converted into any sort of tangible threat. Didier Drogba twice lashed efforts on target from the edge of the box, but otherwise Chelsea’s play was dealt with comfortably by an organised and energetic Fulham.

As the first half wore on, a Chelsea equaliser grew less likely, as the league leaders resorted to swinging in optimistic crosses at Drogba from an array of deep positions, and indeed it was Roy Hodgson’s inspired unit who could have grabbed a second goal just before the break, when Petr Cech tipped over Clint Dempsey’s shot.Chelsea emerged for the second half with added vigour, yet signs of an equaliser were nigh. The Cottagers appeared composed as Chelsea’s melee of midfielders scurried to force an opening. Mark Schwarzer was again wise to a Drogba spin and shot, before the Ivorian forward was criminally left unmarked at the back post to equalise Branislav Ivanovic’s cross on 70 minutes.

Only three minutes later and the game had swung full circle as Schwarzer could only parry a Daniel Sturridge shot onto the leg of Chris Smalling and agonisingly over the line. In the end it was a hard earned and in some ways fortunate win for Chelsea, and one which didn’t look likely for long periods of this Stamford Bridge encounter.

Carlo Ancelotti: “The first half was not good, the second half was better – we played with great determination. It was not easy but we deserved the win. In the second half we changed our system, put Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou out wide and that was better. Drogba not only scored but worked very hard and gave strength to the team. It was good for him and for the team.”

Roy Hodgson: “Chelsea had a lot of the ball and we did a lot of defending but that can happen when you take an early lead. It’s very disappointing to put in such a great performance and have nothing to show for it. It would have been nice to have gone away with a least a point – we pushed Chelsea to the limit and we can consider ourselves very unlucky.”

After such an impressive showing against Arsenal at the Emirates, the statistics that have followed have not made pleasant reading. A run of just one win in seven games has been well documented, yet Carlo Ancelotti and the rest of the mouth pieces at the club have thus far managed to dismiss the sequence as freak-like. A concoction of mis-fortune and a few frayed edges, which should be resolved quickly. However, for over an hour of this West-London derby, Chelsea’s performance hinted at deeper lying issues.

As well as looking unsteady defensively, the Blues appeared motionless in attack, rolling the ball around unopposed in midfield for large periods before the lame assaults fizzled out before they had started. Against a well-drilled Fulham, Chelsea’s midfield was made to look like it was – one paced, narrow and predictable. Even without the dependable Brede Hangeland – replaced by Premier League debutant Chris Smalling – Fulham were unruffled as Chelsea inevitably and incessantly forced the ball Drogba’s way for inspiration.

To the frustration of the home fans their sides forward forays lacked incisiveness and invention. The play was condensed centrally as Chelsea’s battery of central midfield players formed an orderly queue to receive possession. When the ball was dispatched wide, it was to the full-backs, deep, and with the permission of Fulham. With Frank Lampard quiet and Salomon Kalou and Joe Cole doing their best to stifle attacks, confidence and conviction wilted from the league leaders.

After half-time Ancelotti deposited Kalou and Joe Cole to either flank to add a semblance of width to his formation in what was now a quasi-4-3-3. The move did stretch Fulham more and freed up central space for Lampard to roam, yet decent chances were still scarce. Jon Obi Mikel summed up the home side’s travails by slicing horribly wide twice from distance.

An equaliser was not imminent and the game could have been put to bed had Bobby Zamora been able to help Ricardo Carvalho’s under-hit back header past Petr Cech. The miss was to prove costly as with twenty minutes to go Drogba steered a header beyond Schwarzer, before the Aussie stopper inadvertently deflected Sturridge’s cross-shot onto Smalling and into the goal.

It was a cruel and undeserved blow to man and team. Smalling, like many of his colleagues, had barely put a foot wrong on an afternoon in which Roy Hodgson’s increasingly impressive side were entitled to at least a share of the spoils. But Hodgson is a wise old owl, and will welcome in 2010 with widespread optimism. After humbling Manchester united last week, this will again be seen as another feather in the Fulham cap.

Carlo Ancelotti has gone so far as to say he’ll strip naked if Chelsea sign anybody in January. The thought of seeing every nook and cranny of the rotund Italian’s torso does not sound quite as unpalatable to Blues fans as seeing their side labour through the month without Drogba. With the African Cup of Nations almost here, Ancelotti and the Chelsea powerbrokers must decide whether to stick or twist during the January transfer window, with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Franck Ribery seemingly available – and needed.

Chelsea 2 – 1 Fulham Drogba 73, Smalling (og) 75 – Gera 4.

Chelsea (4-1-2-1-2): Cech – Ferreira (Ivanovic 64), Carvalho, Terry, Zhirkov (A Cole 83) – Mikel (Sturridge 70) – Ballack, Lampard – J Cole – Kalou, Drogba

Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer – Pantsil (Etuhu 66), Smalling, Baird, Konchesky – , Dempsey, Murphy, Hughes, Duff (Riise 85) – Gera (Johnson 71) – Zamora

Statistics

Chelsea – Fulham

10 – Corners – 6

18 (11) – Shots (on target) – 3 (3)

10 – Fouls – 13

1 (0) – Yellow cards (Red) – 1 (0)

2 – Offside – 3

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