Chelsea saw out an anxious and frustrating derby with Fulham thanks to a powerful Michael Essien header, but will be without the Ghanaian for some time after he was given his marching orders in the dying moments.
Essien’s timely return from injury added some much needed physicality to Chelsea’s lightweight midfield, and Essien took just under half an hour to demonstrate why his influence and tireless attitude towards the game have been so massively missed in his absence. After a strong period of possession – started by Salomon Kalou’s quick feet and darting run – Essien ghosted into the Fulham box unmarked to head home the Ivorian’s inviting cross.
Fulham may have lost only once on the road this campaign but their inability to register a single win on their travels was always going to see Chelsea backed as heavy favourites despite ex-Blue Mark Hughes bringing his credible track record to Craven Cottage.
Chelsea dominated possession from the outset and were more than happy to bide their time as Fulham fruitlessly chased shadows, but as the game wore on and the balance began to shift, the crisp November air inside Stamford Bridge steadily filled with tension. Without Bosingwa and Ashley Cole bombing forward, Chelsea lack any real width in the final third and Florent Malouda and Yuri Zhirkov continuously surrendered possession attempting defence splitting balls through the centre, which were easily intercepted by Fulham’s rearguard. Kalou had the best chance to make it 2-0 when Zhirkov did execute a perfect through ball only for the striker to drag his shot just wide of the post.
The Blues began to falter after the interval as Damian Duff started to probe his former employers and Fulham grabbed the initiative when Mark Hughes freed them from their defensive shackles, throwing on Andy Johnson for Dickson Etuhu on the hour. Petr Cech had a relatively comfortable night under the circumstances but needed every inch of his 6’7’’ frame to stop Clint Dempsey lashing home from 30 yards and was called into action again when Zoltan Gera rifled in, forcing a superb save from the Czech stopper.
A great piece of skill from Kalou led to a shot that squirmed under the onrushing Schwarzer only to be hooked off the line by Hughes, and the crafty forward soon completed his hat trick of misses before being called back to the bench. Kalou’s countryman Didier Drogba was fairing no better in front of goal as his shot from inside the box was blocked with Schwarz staring on from the floor and also failed to conjure any magic from his unique style of free kick either.
The anxiety in Stamford Bridge was beginning to fester as chances came and went but by the time Essien had reached the tunnel the game was over. Only time will tell how costly his late and unnecessary dismal could be.
17 Bosingwa – 26 Terry – 2 Ivanovic – 3 Cole
5 Essien – 12 Mikel – 18 Zhirkov
21 Kalou – 11 Drogba – 15 Malouda Substitutions
77 – 7 Ramires on for 15 Malouda
85 – 23 Sturridge on for 21 Kalou
88 – 19 Ferreira on for 17 Bosingwa