They might have reached the Champions League semi-finals this month but with every mistake, and every point thrown away, Chelsea edge towards the catastrophe of failing to qualify for the competition next season.
Last night it was Clint Dempsey who scored the goal, eight minutes from time, that denied Chelsea two precious points and left them in sixth place with five matches of the season left. This was a chance to make up three points on Tottenham, but instead they go into the final furlong two points behind their old London rivals and Newcastle United, too.
Not since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 have Chelsea been out of the Champions League places at this stage of the season. And lest it be forgotten, it was the 2003 final between Milan and Juventus that inspired Abramovich to buy a football club. The modern Chelsea are not supposed to be, in the eyes of their owner, a Europa League team.
Roberto Di Matteo bemoaned his team's inability to finish off Fulham with a goal in the second half to add to Frank Lampard's penalty just before the break. But increasingly it is their tendency to concede goals late in games that is proving their undoing. Wigan equalised late on Saturday and Chelsea still rescued the win but when Dempsey headed in Fulham's goal on 82 minutes last night there was to be no comeback.
The run-in for Chelsea includes games against Arsenal and Newcastle, both teams who could potentially finish above them this season. Starting on Sunday they play Spurs, in the FA Cup semi-final; Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final first leg three days later and then Arsenal on the following Saturday. If things go badly, the whole season could be up in smoke by the end of it.
The chances are that Branislav Ivanovic will learn today that he faces a three-match ban imposed retrospectively by the Football Association for punching Sean Maloney on Saturday, adding to Di Matteo's problems. The Chelsea manager refused to discuss the Ivanovic issue last night although even he had to admit that the defending was a concern.
"In the second half we couldn't quite get the second goal, maybe didn't pose enough threat to kill the game off," Di Matteo said. "It's been a bit of a pattern, but we put a big effort in to win this game. The biggest disappointment is that we conceded an equaliser late on. It's been a pattern this season, conceding late goals. If you manage to get a second goal, it gives the opposition less hope. It's always shaky at 1-0.
"You couldn't have written off Newcastle. Arsenal have a little gap [to those behind them], for sure. But it's important for us, the fourth spot. I think it's going to go down to the last game. Again, you saw some unexpected results [yesterday]. It's football, a very competitive league. There are no easy games."
It was a dubious penalty award that helped Chelsea on their way in the first place. Salomon Kalou ran into the box down the inside left channel and went down when Danny Murphy lunged in with two feet. It later transpired that Mark Clattenburg, the referee, gave the penalty for what he regarded as a foul by Stephen Kelly as the three converged.
There was only the most minimal contact between Kalou and Kelly, which, as Fulham manager Martin Jol said, only made the penalty more "confusing". "We thought it was Murphy [the penalty was given against] but he touched the ball," Jol said. "With Kelly, I don't think he did it ... it was an accidental collision. I'm not sure if it's an English phrase, but he [Kalou] 'tripped himself'.
"The referee said it was Kelly and that made it a bit more confusing for us. I thought it might have been the tackle from Murphy, but you can see from the telly that the tackle was not on purpose."
The only bad news of the day for Fulham was confirmation that Bryan Ruiz has fractured a metatarsal and is out for the rest of the season. They are 11th on 42 points and only behind Sunderland on goal difference. Dempsey has 16 goals for the season now and along with Moussa Dembélé in central midfield was Fulham's outstanding performer.
In the rain and wind it was not a classic but there were moments of excellence from Kerim Frei, the young Swiss winger. Even after Fulham scored the equaliser they had attempts on goal from John Arne Riise and substitute Orlando Sa which might have won them the game.
Frei ran down the inside left channel on 26 minutes, cut in past John Terry and hit a low shot to Petr Cech's right which the goalkeeper palmed around the post. In that period Chelsea looked like they might struggle if Fulham could maintain the pressure but the home side lost their way somewhat and their opposition found a foothold in the game.
Chelsea's penalty came in the 44th minute of the match and was keenly contested by the Fulham players. It was the 150th Premier League goal of Lampard's career, stroked to Mark Schwarzer's right side. The goalkeeper guessed correctly but it was past him and in the net before he could get close. Lampard gets short shrift from the Fulham fans whenever he visits Craven Cottage which probably explained his exuberant celebrations in front of them.
There was considerable controversy over the award of the penalty to Chelsea, but they were aggrieved not to get another six minutes after half-time when Brede Hangeland appeared to push Lampard over when Bertrand's cross from the left came in.
Juan Mata had been left on the bench by Di Matteo who opted for Raul Meireles in that more creative role behind Fernando Torres. With 20 minutes left, Mata was brought into the game as Chelsea searched for the goal that would finish Fulham off, but it was the home side who made all the running.
Torres was assigned to mark Aaron Hughes at corners which very nearly resulted in a goal for Hughes with nine minutes left. Cech made another good save. From the corner Dempsey lost Terry, who was then blocked by the substitute Dickson Etuhu as he attempted to get back to his man. Dempsey's header brushed off Cahill's back and inside Cech's post. Fulham had scored the goal they deserved.
Arsenal: Tomorrow Wolves (a); 16 April Wigan (h); 21 April Chelsea (h); 28April Stoke (a); 5 May Norwich (h); 13 May West Bromwich (a)
Tottenham: 21 April QPR (a); 29 April Blackburn (h); 2 May Bolton (a); 6 May Aston Villa (a); 13 May Fulham (h)
Newcastle: 21 April Stoke (h); 28 April Wigan (a); 2 May Chelsea (a); 6 May Manchester City (h); 13 May Everton (a)
Chelsea: 21 April Arsenal (a); 29April QPR (h); 2 May Newcastle (h); 5 May Liverpool (a); 13 May Blackburn (h)
Fulham: SCHWARZER, KELLY, HUGHES, HANGELAND, RIISE, DUFF, DIARRA, MURPHY, DEMBELE, FREI, DEMPSEY,
Chelsea: CECH, BERTRAND, TERRY, CAHILL, IVANOVIC, MIKEL, LAMPARD, KALOU, MEIRELES, RAMIRES, TORRES
Scorers: Fulham: Dempsey 82. Chelsea: Lampard 45 pen
Substitutes: Fulham Murphy (Etuhu, 74), Sa (Diarra, 81), Kacaniklic (Frei, 88). Chelsea Mata ( Meireles, 70), Drogba (Ramires, 83).
Booked: Fulham Murphy. Chelsea Cahill, Mikel, Meireles. Man of the match Dembélé. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Fulham 49% Chelsea 51%.
Attempts on target: Fulham 9 Chelsea 4.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
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