As Hernan Crespo's winner hit the back of the net, Jose Mourinho set off on a sprint down the touchline - not, this time, in celebration, but to make one last decisive substitution in a game that should have been ended as a contest long ago. The rest of Stamford Bridge were on their feet but the Chelsea manager had seen quite enough madness invade his ordered universe of football domination for one day.
It started as a routine assassination of Fulham and ended as an untidy scramble for all three points. For those who have watched the blue machine roll on mercilessly for the last 12 months, yesterday was something of a collector's item. There was a dreadful error from Petr Cech, a blatant handball in his own area by John Terry, a two-goal lead tossed away and - perhaps more priceless than any other - Mourinho admitting that the opposition had deserved to be awarded not one but two penalties.
All that and yet Chelsea still recorded their 10th home Premiership win of the season. "It's not easy to play like we did," said Mourinho and at times it was hard not to agree with him. With Chelsea two goals up, Cech let the ball slide between his legs for the first Fulham goal, then Cole gave away a penalty and suddenly the great impregnability of Mourinho's Chelsea was punctured. Level at 2-2 he changed to a three-man defence and at last this great fortress of English football was treated to the one emotion it so often lacks: uncertainty.
The thrilling conclusion to this match, settled by a beautifully executed Crespo volley from a peerless Cole cross, was in sharp contrast to the sad air of inevitability that suffused Fulham's disastrous start. Without Papa Bouba Diop, Steed Malbranque, Claus Jensen and Moritz Volz, Chris Coleman's side succumbed within three minutes to William Gallas' first Chelsea goal of the season - Robert Huth's header from Frank Lampard's corner fell simply to Gallas' feet.
With the callow full-back Dean Leacock in a vain pursuit of Arjen Robben and Lampard in full charge of the match, Coleman could have abandoned his ambitious decision to play two strikers with Tomasz Radzinski in support. But even when Lampard's 24th-minute shot cannoned off Sylvain Legwinski and beat goalkeeper Mark Crossley, the Fulham manager stuck to his principles of attacking football. "With the players we had," he said, "we had to come here and have a go."
As the second Chelsea goal bounced in, Brian McBride was not even on the pitch but when he emerged with his head freshly stitched, he may have thought that his vision had been affected as well as he watched what unfolded in the home area on 29 minutes. A harmless free-kick from Luis Boa Morte was spilt back through his legs by Chelsea's Czech goalkeeper and dropped at the feet of McBride, who scored.
Cech may not thank Chelsea's pre-match announcer for billing him as "the best goalkeeper in the world" if he is to be afflicted by any more yips. Fulham had crept back into the game and on 51 minutes they survived what appeared to be a clear penalty when Zat Knight's arm struck the ball. Within another five minutes they were level. Liam Rosenior found McBride, who got ahead of Cole and was tripped yards from goal. Heidar Helguson converted the penalty and immediately Mourinho changed Huth for Didier Drogba to force the issue.
At last, a soporific Stamford Bridge realised that three gift-wrapped points were not theirs for the asking. Lampard had a goal disallowed for offside and Crossley saved brilliantly from Crespo's header.
Poor Tony Warner. He was sent on to replace the injured Crossley and almost immediately Chelsea struck. Cole bounded down the right and struck a curling cross that allowed Crespo to crash the ball home at the back post.
Chelsea survived a handball by Terry on 81 minutes that was so clear Coleman and Mourinho both gave it as a penalty. "I think Graham Poll is a good referee," Coleman said, "but I know he got that decision wrong."
The decisive factor? Mourinho said it was switching Cole - "my best attacker at the moment" - to his favourite position on the right wing in the second half. The Chelsea manager's subsequent confession that he himself had been "not too clever" in playing him out of position early on, was just one more surprise on an unusual day.
Goals: Gallas (3) 1-0; Lampard (24) 2-0; McBride (29) 2-1; Helguson pen (56) 2-2; Crespo (74) 3-2.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Huth (Drogba, 57), Terry, Gallas; Makelele; Wright-Phillips (Gudjohnsen, h-t), Lampard, J Cole, Robben; Crespo (Geremi, 76). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Bridge.
Fulham (4-3-2-1): Crossley (Warner, 71); Leacock, Knight, Goma, Rosenior; Legwinski, Christanval, Boa Morte; Radzinski, Helguson (John, 70); McBride. Substitutes not used: Bocanegra, Elrich, Pearce.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Cole; Fulham Christanval, Legwinski, John.
Man of the match: Boa Morte.
Attendance: 42,313.Reuse content