Club Focus – Chelsea – Wilkins departs Bridge after Blues extend lead at the top

Premier League leaders Chelsea have announced that assistant manager Ray Wilkins will leave the club with immediate effect after the decision was made not to renew his contract. Wilkins, 54, assisted Gianluca Vialli between 1999-2000 and returned to the club for his second spell as Chelsea assistant manager in summer 2008 to work under Luiz Felipe Scolari. He took temporary charge of the club in the aftermath of the Brazilian’s sacking in February 2009, leading the side to victory in his sole match as manager against Watford in the FA Cup fourth round. Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay said in a statement on the official club website: “On behalf of everyone at the club I would like to thank Ray for everything he has done for Chelsea Football Club. We all wish him well for the future.”

For Wilkins, his final game in the Chelsea dugout ended in victory as the Blues saw off their West London neighbours Fulham 1-0 at Stamford Bridge to open up a four-point lead at the top of the Premier League. With nearest challengers Manchester United drawing 0-0 at local rivals City, Chelsea extended their lead with a narrow win ensured by Michael Essien’s first-half header. After the weekend defeat away to Liverpool, the reigning champions returned home and started slowly, labouring in attack and lacking a clear-cut chance against their defensively organised visitors until the half-hour when Essien struck. The Ghanaian, returning to the line-up after missing the previous two games, left Dickson Etuhu trailing as he nodded Salomon Kalou’s clipped cross past Mark Schwarzer to give his side the lead with his fourth goal of the season.

Kalou went from provider to should-have-been scorer as he wasted a good chance to put the game to bed before half-time. The Ivorian did everything right but the all important finish after latching onto Yuri Zhirkov’s through ball and muscling past young defender Matthew Briggs only to aim his shot wide of Schwarzer’s bottom corner. His effort was nearly rewarded shortly after half-time as he dribbled into the box past Brede Hangeland and got his effort on target, but Schwarzer’s outstretched foot slowed the momentum of the shot allowing Aaron Hughes to hook the striker’s goalbound effort clear.

As the game went on with the hosts missing further chances and just a sole goal ahead, Fulham grew in confidence and started to threaten in attack, leading to a nervy few moments for the home supporters. American Clint Dempsey forced Petr Cech into an athletic save from a long range effort and the Czech Republic goalkeeper made another stop from Zoltan Gera’s drilled volley from the edge of the box. The Blues held out to equal the 73-year club record of nine consecutive clean sheets at home, 871 minutes having elapsed since Cech was last beaten at Stamford Bridge by Aston Villa’s John Carew. Unfortunately Essien’s night ended badly as he was dismissed in injury time to dampen the win, receiving a straight red card for a dangerous stamping tackle on Dempsey. The Blues’ next match sees them take on Steve Bruce’s Sunderland side at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon as they look for a seventh home win in a row this season.

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