Frank Lampard could celebrate the persistence and desire from his players. Chelsea ground Fulham down in the end, finally breaking the deadlock when Mason Mount drove the winning goal home with 12 minutes to go. Lampard leapt into the air, a weight lifting from his shoulders, spared another inquest.
Yet it was an uncomfortable evening. While the patience was commendable, Chelsea fell short in the creativity department. Fulham, four points below Burnley in 17th place, had almost held out. They played the entire second half with 10 men after Antonee Robinson’s red card and succeeded in frustrating Chelsea for long spells.
As Fulham focused on compressing the pitch during the early stages, sitting deep and playing on the break, the pressure on Chelsea to seize the initiative grew. At times it felt too sedate from the visitors, too mannered, even if a deep-lying pivot of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic helped them to establish control in midfield. Chelsea needed sharper movement and more imagination to prise Fulham apart and the longer it stayed goalless, the harder it became to detect much of a pattern from Lampard’s side in the final third.
In fairness, there was a logic to a conservative starting XI from Lampard, even though many Chelsea fans were disappointed to see Jorginho filling in for the suspended N’Golo Kanté after an impressive display from young Billy Gilmour against Morecambe last weekend. Expecting Fulham to provide an awkward test after holding Tottenham, Lampard wanted leaders on the pitch.
Kurt Zouma made way for Antonio Rüdiger, partnering Thiago Silva in central defence for the first time this season, and Olivier Giroud was preferred in attack to Timo Werner, whose pace might have proved ineffective in the face of cautious Fulham defending.
Giroud had Chelsea’s first chance, testing Alphonse Areola with a swerving drive after good work from Mount. The issue, though, was putting Lampard’s theory into practice. Chelsea lacked a spark despite dominating possession. Christian Pulisic was having a quiet game on the left wing and Hakim Ziyech was finding it difficult to pick the lock whenever he drifted in from the right flank. Callum Hudson-Odoi, left out despite impressing off the bench recently, could count himself unlucky not to be involved.
Chelsea began to knock on the door midway through the half. Mount hit the bar after a poor attempt at a clearance from Robinson, who would go on to blunder again, and Rüdiger tested Areola from the resulting corner. Yet there was not enough of a spark from Chelsea, little sign of any cohesion in attack.
With Harrison Reed snapping into challenges in midfield and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa offering flashes of class alongside him, Fulham’s confidence increased. Although they struggled to carve out opportunities for Ademola Lookman to run at César Azpilicueta, they still had the chance of the half.
When a flowing break left Chelsea ragged, Ivan Cavaleiro blazed over from close range. That was a let-off for Chelsea and Fulham would soon press the self-destruct button. The interval was approaching when Robinson, attempting to win a loose ball, leapt into a reckless challenge and sent Azpilicueta flying. Peter Bankes, the referee, instantly showed the wing-back a red card.
Going down to 10 men was the last thing that Fulham needed after having two days to prepare for their trip to Spurs. Fatigue was a concern given that Parker’s squad was hit by a Covid-19 outbreak recently. Fulham must have felt the lactic acid rising. They ran themselves into the ground against Spurs and Parker could make only one change, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek ineligible against his parent club.
It was up to Chelsea to take advantage. They pushed at the start of the second half, forcing a succession of corners, and Giroud went close. Yet Fulham refused to budge. They were defending heroically, maintaining tactical discipline, their commitment to the cause summed up when Ziyech saw two white shirts charge to close the space as the Moroccan lined up a shot from 20 yards.
With the clock running down, Lampard was under pressure to use his bench wisely. Chelsea hardly needed two defensive midfielders on the pitch. But Lampard wasted valuable time, changing nothing until the 65th minute, finally budging by introducing Tammy Abraham for Jorginho.
Abraham sprinted on to join Giroud up front and quickly sent two headers off target. Yet inspiration continued to elude Chelsea and the unthinkable almost happened at the other end, Silva bailing out Edouard Mendy after a mistake from Chelsea’s goalkeeper presented Cavaleiro with an opening.
Lampard turned to Werner and Hudson-Odoi, the latter making an impact by dribbling down the right and sending in a cross that eventually came to Ben Chilwell. The left-back’s chip was clawed by Areola and fell to Mount, who blasted the loose ball home. Chelsea were relieved. The doubts, however, will not go away.