Crespo's class puts Ranieri back in favour

Fulham 0 Chelsea 1
Click to follow

The directors' box positively groaned with the weight of A-list celebrities (well, Rod Stewart), coaches (Sven, with Nancy, oh and Gordon Strachan) and two of football's major benefactors (let's just call them Ab Fab and Big Al). But most crucially for Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, down below on the touchline, it was significant that the most influential of them, the slight, subdued Russian, frowning in the front row, should by the end signal his satisfaction once again.

It has been an anxious week. For Roman Abramovich, and you suspect for Ranieri, too. One does not invest £111m in a club for your acquisition to capitulate at home to Bolton; then to fall to Aston Villa, albeit in a competition which may be considered an irrelevance, in the space of four days.

Yesterday, normal service was resumed to hoist Chelsea back to the summit - they have an identical record to Arsenal - although Abramovich's team received as severe an examination as they might have anticipated from Mohamed Al Fayed's Fulham, who have been charged with renewed vigour, character and no little enterprise under the astute management of Chris Coleman.

Chelsea, who have made their best ever start to a season in the top flight, merited this victory over neighbours they have met infrequently in the last two decades. Though only just. Principally, they did so because in £16.8m purchase Hernan Crespo they possessed a marksman of rare potency who won this contest with a splendid header, although Ranieri deemed the Argentinian as operating at "only 60 to 70 per cent of his quality". The Italian added: "It was not the true Crespo. He can do better."

Chelsea also prevailed because in gusty conditions, which placed a premium on accurate passing, they could call on men possessing the imagination and finesse of a Frank Lampard. Were you watching, Sven? He persevered throughout, sizing up angles like a seasoned surveyor, delivering his final ball adroitly, particularly for Crespo, who could have accumulated a hat-trick.

The manager clearly relished this win. He would have enjoyed it more had it not been for Damien Duff suffering a dislocated shoulder in the opening minutes - the legacy of a late challenge by Sean Davis, who himself had to retire early with a hamstring problem. The Irishman, arguably Chelsea's best summer signing, ended the day in hospital. "It is a blow for us," said Ranieri, whose displeasure will be shared by another member of his family. "When I don't put Damien in the squad, my mother [Renate], who's 84, says'Why?," adds Ranieri, with a huge laugh. "She kills me. That's true."

This west London derby involved fourth versus third, but only on superficial inspection. Eleven points separated the old rivals before the start of play. With Fulham a model of inconsistency, you are never quite certain what side will turn up. Neither can you be sure about Chelsea.

Here there was a rarity. No changes from the team beaten in the last minute by Bolton. Keeping faith in a losing team? Louis Saha was Fulham's lone striker, supported by a five-man midfield. Though the Chelsea defence were alert to Saha, they still permitted him to guide a header goalbound from Lee Clark's cross early on, but Carlo Cudicini's agility denied him.

Duff responded with a 20-yard drive, commanding an equally adept stop by Edwin van der Sar. Davis's challenge ensured the Irish international was to play no further part and he was replaced by Joe Cole who, despite contributing to Chelsea's overall midfield dominance, found himself rather ignominiously withdrawn again before the end. Chelsea were starting to flow, while Fulham were rather laboured in possession.

"Generally, the quality of our play was poor. We lacked a bit of quality," agreed Coleman. Crespo burst through on one occasion, but, seemingly being held back by Fulham captain Andy Melville, he dragged his effort wide. Following a Chelsea corner, Glen Johnson dug a shot into the ground, the ball reared up and it required a desperate headed clearance from former Chelsea man Jon Harley to deflect the it over. The resulting cornerby Adrian Mutu produced a flick by Crespo for John Terry to unleash a fierce attempt, which Van der Sar saved with his legs. Then Jesper Gronkjaer, lively on the right, outwitted Harley, but shot grotesquely high over the bar.

Fulham always posed a threat from set-pieces. From Steed Malbranque's free-kick, just before the interval, Melville's headed was diverted wide by Cudicini. After the break, Chelsea maintained their earlier momentum. An excellent ball from Cole allowed Crespo to seek Lampard in space in the area, but the England man opted for precision rather than pace and van der Sar moved swiftly across his line to thwart him. Malbranque replied with a precise ball through to Saha, who looked suspiciously as though he was hampered by Terry en route, although Cudicini eventually blocked him.

Then, just after the hour, Chelsea struck. Wayne Bridge flighted a splendid cross from the left, Crespo leapt magnificently, his marker Melville didn't, and the ball was in the net via a post. Almost immediately, Crespo had a chance to extend the advantage but failed to make contact with Lampard's dink forward.

The goal provoked a frenetic finish, with chances spurned by Fulham, notably from Malbranque, Luis Boa Morte, Sylvain Legwinski and Moritz Volz. Chelsea held on. It was a day when their character was under scrutiny. They emerged intact, with their owner's approval, and still very much in championship contention.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 1
Crespo 62

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 18,244