Bittersweet return for Essien as suspension further depletes Chelsea

Chelsea 1 Fulham 0
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The Independent Football

Chelsea striker Didier Drogba played despite being diagnosed with malaria, but by the final whistle here last night it was his team-mate Michael Essien who needed someone to mop his fevered brow.

Essien, whose headed goal on the half-hour decided this game, lunged in with two feet off the ground to challenge Clint Dempsey in the 93rd minute and was reprimanded with a straight red card, even though he had already been cautioned. The challenge was both reckless and needless, and Essien will now be banned for three games, which will mean he misses Sunday's match against Sunderland at home and then two away fixtures at Birmingham City and Newcastle United.

With his headed goal, Essien put Chelsea's title challenge back on track, extending their advantage over Manchester United to four points; yet with his inexplicable lack of discipline, he has left manager Carlo Ancelotti with a major problem.

Essien, fit again after two seasons marred by terrible injuries and two games out with a toe injury, has been a key performer for Ancelotti's team, even more so given the prolonged absence of Frank Lampard. Ancelotti said last night that the midfielder should be able to return against Sunderland on but he will not be match-fit.

Ancelotti exonerated his player for the challenge, but said he wanted to study TV replays before deciding whether the club would appeal. "Maybe it was not a red card because Essien did a strong tackle but on the ball. There was not a risk on the opponent," he said. "I don't think he made a silly foul. He tried to do a tackle, he won the tackle. And I'm not sure it was a sending off. It would be a problem if we lose him for three games."

It certainly would, as Chelsea's injury problems are mounting. Drogba is suffering from malaria, Lampard is not fit and both Nicolas Anelka and Alex missed this game with niggling injuries. To make matters worse, their captain, John Terry, left the pitch limping with a back problem. All of which makes Essien's tackle all the more unforgiveable, as Chelsea can ill afford to do without a player who can make the impact he does.

This season has seen him play with more freedom and attacking purpose, released from restrictive holding role and given the chance to express his power in the opponents' half of the pitch. The Ghanaian demonstrated as much with his goal after half an hour.

Fulham failed to clear a free-kick fully and Salomon Kalou, wide on Chelsea's left, looked up to see Essien calling for it in the area. The Ivorian crossed and Essien, who is nicknamed "the Train" by his team-mates, arrived right on time ahead of Dickson Etuhu to head his fourth goal of the season.

Mark Hughes, the Fulham manager, was less than happy that referee Martin Atkinson had not stopped play before the cross came in, as Drogba was lying on the floor with an injury.

Hughes said: "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."

After a stuttering start, the goal gave Chelsea the confidence to put Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Liverpool behind them, and they created enough chances to have the game in the game by half-time. Kalou was their sharpest attacking threat, but he could not find the killer touch to put this derby beyond Chelsea's neighbours. Twice he fired shots wide of the Fulham goal, and when he did manage to hit the target, following a brilliant run at the visiting defence, his shot went through the legs of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer but was cleared off the line by Aaron Hughes.

Fulham's Northern Ireland international also blocked a shot from Drogba, and Schwarzer made a fine double save to deny Florent Malouda and John Obi Mikel.

Fulham were disappointing, with their focus firmly on containing their west London rivals. Their best moments came late in the game when Dempsey let fly from 30 yards and Petr Cech dived full length to keep the scores level. Substitute Zoltan Gera also tested Chelsea's experienced keeper with a fierce volley.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa (Ferreira, 88), Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Essien, Mikel, Zhirkov; Kalou (Sturridge, 85), Drogba, Malouda (Ramires, 77). Substitutes not used Turnbull (gk), Bruma, McEachran, Kakuta

Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs (Gera, 79); Davies, Murphy, Etuhu (A Johnson, 61), Duff; Dempsey; Dembele. Substitutes not used Stockdale (gk) Pantsil, Dikgacoi, Greening, E Johnson.

Referee M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).

Attendance 41,593.

Man of the Match Kalou.

Match Rating 5/10.