Chelsea get the three points from West London rivals Fulham and extend their lead in the Premier League to four points, but their 1-0 triumph comes at a major cost - Michael Essien was shown a straight red card in the 93rd minute and is now looking at a three game suspension, missing matches against Sunderland, Birmingham, and Newcastle. With Chelsea showing just how vulnerable they are in midfield without Essien's presence during the 2-0 loss to Liverpool on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti will be unhappy that they will have to do without for a while.
The game itself was one of the more bizarre of the season, and the greater passage of play was certainly not reflective of the scoreline. Chelsea dominated the match for 80 minutes before Fulham pushed hard for an equaliser with a late surge, and the Blues should have had the game won by half-time. Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou were both poor, though it's perhaps forgivable from the former, who must still be feeling the effects of malaria after suffering from the condition for more than a month.
The game started fairly innocently, with Chelsea probing the Fulham lines and the visitors unable to do much while on the ball. Although Mark Hughes's team ostensibly lined up with two strikers, in practice Clint Dempsey played very deep, leaving Moussa Dembele isolated up front and unable to trouble John Obi Mikel even when Fulham were in possession. Chelsea, meanwhile, were attempting to pepper Mark Schwarzer's box with crosses, most of them of the fairly ugly variety. The Blues were getting very good penetration down the flanks thanks to the work of the fullbacks, with Jose Bosingwa in particular making a few swashbuckling runs through the Fulham ranks.
The Cottagers seemed to be inches away from panic at times early on and got away with a few mistakes - handballs in dangerous positions were going totally unnoticed by referee Martin Atkinson (including one in the box which would have been the weakest penalty ever if called), and at one point Aaron Hughes was lucky to get away with falling over as he attempted to shepherd the ball out.
Chelsea were clearly the side in the ascendancy, and when they took the lead in the 30th minute it came as little surprise. Drogba slipped in the box while chasing after the cross, but Kalou picked up the ball on the left and whipped in a delivery for Michael Essien, unmarked after a strong run, to power past Schwarzer. It was a simply finish from a glorious whipped cross, which came as something of a surprise, as Chelsea's previous deliveries had posed more danger to the supporters than to Fulham.
Mark Hughes, for, his part, was unimpressed:
"As for the goal, that's a disappointment from our point of view. We were distracted by Drogba lying prone in the box. You still have to play to the whistle, so maybe we were guilty of expecting the referee to blow up. He didn't and we paid the penalty. It's confusing the way the game is viewed in terms of when players go down: are they faking, and do you kick the ball out?" [Telegraph]
This would be a less bizarre tack to take if Fulham had had the opportunity to put the ball out of play - the team with a player down is well within their rights to keep playing through an injury. No controversy here.
Chelsea's goal lifted the team, and they played with a swagger for the rest of the half, generating a bevy of good chances for Salomon Kalou, who was the beneficiary of an excellent pass from Zhirkov and two wonderful deliveries from Florent Malouda. Unfortunately, the Ivorian was able to convert none of his goalscoring opportunities - on another day he might easily have notched a hat trick before half time.
Although there was only one team really in the game as half time came, everybody watching knew that unless Chelsea could pad their lead we were in for a fairly intense finale. Fulham had scored a 94th minute equaliser to deny Aston Villa at Craven Cottage just a few days ago, and with Zoltan Gera and Andrew Johnson both available on the bench the visitors had enough firepower to be at least slightly worrying in the late stages of the match.
Fulham kicked off to start the second half (on the second attempt), and Danny Murphy immediately picked out Petr Cech with a rather bizarre fifty yard pass to nowhere. Chelsea went back on the attack, and there were a few good chances interrupted by Essien being shown yellow for a going in late straight through Clint Dempsey, who was giving as good as he was getting in his running battle with Essien and Mikel.
Kalou spurned another easy chance after waltzing through the Fulham defence, only to be denied by a combination of Schwarzer's right leg and Hughes's presence on the goal line. A few minutes later there was another scare, with Malouda and Mikel both denied by Schwarzer before Essien shot wide when it seemed easier to score. Then Drogba had an opportunity to shoot from the edge of the box with the goalkeeper out of the picture, and he picked the 10% of the goal occupied by Aaron Hughes. It's important to note how random the game can be sometimes - the five chances I mentioned would, on average, result in at least two goals, but Chelsea got exactly zero from all of that work.
They were very nearly made to pay for it. Fulham committed their reserves in hopes of an equaliser, deploying Andrew Johnson up front on the hour mark, followed by the introduction of Zoltan Gera during the 79th minute, with the largely anonymous Dickson Etuhu and right back Stephen Briggs making way. The changes paid off. Twice in the last ten minutes Cech was forced into acrobatic saves, first tipping over from Dempsey's long-range hit and then getting his body behind Zoltan Gera's vicious half-volley. Dempsey wasn't just interested in assaulting the Chelsea net, however, as demonstrated by a fairly nasty elbow straight into Jose Bosingwa's face while 'challenging' for a header, the injury forcing the right back off.
Although Fulham never really looked like carving up the Chelsea defence, the home crowd was still nervous when four minutes injury time was announced. Carlo Ancelotti had responded to the increased pressure by introducing Ramires for Florent Malouda and pushing Yuri Zhirkov higher up the field, creating a more naturally defensive shape which the visitors, for all their industry, were having trouble playing through. Fears were starting to abide by the time the 93rd minute rolled around - which was when Essien, with virtually the last kick of the game, lunged in two-footed on Clint Dempsey and was immediately shown the red card.
It's hard to imagine Essien bothering to jump in like that if the game isn't so tight, and unless Chelsea appeal (which seems doubtful, considering the clear two-footedness of the challenge) he looks to be suspended for the next three matches. However, he's recovering from a toe injury and none of the matches he'll miss are going to be terribly taxing - with Frank Lampard supposedly fit and ready to start on Saturday Essien might be able to view his suspension as time off for his toe to fully heal. There's no doubt that the red card took some of the gloss of what should have been an emphatic victory, though - but Chelsea are once again well clear of their closest rivals (Manchesters City and United 'fought' it out to a goalless draw at the Eastlands) at the top of the table, which is good enough for me.