This is getting serious. For the fourth game in succession, a Chelsea defence deprived of John Terry's commanding presence conceded two goals, allowing Fulham, like Reading last Tuesday, to leave Stamford Bridge with a deserved draw and putting Jose Mourinho's side six points behind Manchester United at the head of the Premiership. There is a limit to how often Didier Drogba - reaching 20 goals for the season with his sixth in as many games - can rescue them.
Mourinho acknowledged the fact with his most brutal analysis of their form since arriving in London two and a half years ago. "What can you do with [Michael] Ballack? Nothing." he said. "What can you do with Gérémi? Nothing. The players have no qualities adapted to the game opponents are playing against us - it is as obvious as that."
"We can't defend, we concede incredible goals and in attack we have one player," he added. "Maybe we're not so good as we thought. Maybe I'm not such a good manager and the players are not such good players. When the opponent sees one mistake after another, they smell a chance. Before, they knew they could not score. Now they can."
There may well be an element of geeing those players up with his criticism, but it was strong stuff nevertheless, even when diluted a little with reference to the squad's injuries. As well as Terry and Petr Cech, Joe Cole and Arjen Robben were also missing. But Chelsea, of all clubs, can expect no sympathy for that when there are still three players who cost £58m sitting on the substitutes' bench.
The current predicament will make their dealings in the imminent transfer window all the more interesting. Roman Abramovich said last week that he would not be financing such extravagant purchases as in the past and Mourinho was last night toeing that party line, insisting Chelsea would not pay over the odds. "When I see the eyes of some clubs lighting up, asking incredible amounts for very normal players, I'd say no. I don't need millions [to spend]. I need the best goalkeeper in the world and the best centre-half in the world back."
Fortunately, Terry is making a remarkable recovery. Only two days after a back operation, he was in chipper mood following a morning spent running and swimming and could return within a fortnight. But Cole has a stress fracture of the foot and may need surgery.
All this inevitably deflected praise away from another creditable performance by Fulham, who have been just as badly hit by injuries as their posh neighbours up the road. Deploying a bold formation with three attackers, they had gone ahead when Moritz Volz scored the 15,000th Premiership goal, though Carlos Bocanegra's late equaliser was the moment that mattered most to them.
Midfield is where they have been shortest of bodies and it was a right-back forced to play wide on the left who stunned Chelsea with the opening goal. Mourinho must have been horrified at the manner in which it was conceded, Volz being left unmarked as Tomasz Radzinski dummied a throw-in from the left, allowing the German all the time he required to shoot beyond Henrique Hilario. There should have been a second shock for the home side only three minutes later. Wayne Routledge had even more space to himself than Volz had done as Brian McBride found him from the same danger area on the left. From 15 yards, the little winger side-footed over.
Having scored, a hitherto adventurous Fulham then pulled more men back but conceded an equaliser in the 34th minute. Claude Makelele's cross was met by a weak header from Liam Rosenior, who was unlucky to deflect Frank Lampard's strong low shot past his goalkeeper. Mourinho, having preferred Salomon Kalou to the misfiring Andriy Shevchenko, waited little more than 10 minutes after half-time before sending Shevchenko into the attack.
In happier times, Drogba's header from Lampard's chip would have sealed the points, but Chelsea can no longer be relied upon to protect a lead. Routledge drove wide and Luis Boa Morte, on as a substitute, forced Hilario into another good save after a cross from the right dropped over Michael Essien's head. It was significant that Mourinho's next substitution was to withdraw Kalou and send on the more defensive Wayne Bridge. This time the plan misfired.
Seven minutes from the end Essien and Ballack both failed to clear a free-kick, Hilario could only parry McBride's shot and Bocanegra tapped in the rebound to give an unexpectedly interesting title race another twist.Reuse content