In the past month Chelsea have turned into football's equivalent of Gordon Brown – still leading the country but Lord only knows how. Ever since their emphatic 3-0 victory at Arsenal, Chelsea have turned into a one-man team.
Without Didier Drogba's timely intervention, which provided the spark for their second win in six league games, Chelsea looked to be heading to what would have been a crushing defeat. Instead, they head into the New Year five points clear.
Drogba, like Chelsea, was awful for the first hour of the game. The striker was at his melodramatic worst, rolling around in agony at the slightest touch. But he and Chelsea woke from their slumbers in time to win an entertaining London derby and secure three vital points. Jose Mourinho certainly picked his moment to return to Stamford Bridge for the first time since his dismissal more than two years ago. Mourinho's Internazionale side play Chelsea in the Champions League on 24 February, so the Special One took the opportunity to see his former club play before they lose Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel to the African Nations Cup. He will not have been impressed.
Sitting in the seat up in the West Stand, opposite the dugout he used to occupy with such a flourish, Mourinho watched as his former club continued their recent habit of looking like a team that rarely plays together. Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, made six changes from the side that drew 0-0 at Birmingham on Boxing Day, and it showed. Passes went astray and runs went unspotted as Chelsea floundered against their local rivals. It is customary to invite the neighbours round during the festive period, but Chelsea took their hospitality duties a little too seriously.
They were booed off the pitch at half-time after a dire opening 45 minutes. Fulham took the lead after four minutes when Chelsea failed to deal with Paul Konchesky's cross from the left. Ricardo Carvalho missed his attempted header and John Terry failed to stop Bobby Zamora steering the ball towards Zoltan Gera, who flicked the ball up before scoring with a bicycle kick.
Petr Cech tipped over a curling shot from Clint Dempsey as Fulham scented Chelsea were there for the taking. The Chelsea jitters were in full flow, and their goalkeeper also saved well from Zamora after a terrible back header from Carvalho.
Gradually in the second half Chelsea began to find greater width, particularly once Branislav Ivanovic replaced the ineffectual Paulo Ferreira. Drogba hauled Chelsea level with his 19th goal of what is becoming a prolific season. Ivanovic burst down the right flank and arrowed a cross to the far post where stand-in right-back Chris Baird was guilty of ball-watching and Drogba ghosted in at the far post to head the ball into the Fulham net. Baird had been forced into defence after the excellent John Pantsil came off with a twisted knee.
Victory for Chelsea came in the most fortunate of circumstances. Fulham had coped admirably without their towering defender Brede Hangeland, who twisted his knee ligaments in the Boxing Day draw with Spurs. Chris Smalling, who 18 months ago was playing for Maidstone in the Isthmian League, was thrown in for his first league start, and the 20-year-old coped superbly.
However, Smalling's day was ruined when Daniel Sturridge's shot was parried by Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer and the England Under-21 defender could do nothing as the rebound struck him on the knee and rolled back into his own goal.
With their tails up, Chelsea were transformed and in the final moments their Ivorian front pair of Drogba and Kalou both went close.
Drogba dragged a shot wide, and Kalou struck the bar with a shot from the edge of the penalty area. At the final whistle, Drogba theatrically organised the Chelsea players into a huddle on the pitch and delivered a farewell speech to his team-mates, presumably something along the lines of, "you can do it without me". He then followed it by throwing his shirt to the crowd. The Ivorian flies off today for a month of African Nations Cup action, and Chelsea have to hope their title aspirations do not depart with him.
Chelsea (4-1-2-1-2): Cech; Ferreira (Ivanovic, 65), Carvalho, Terry, Zhirkov (A Cole, 84); Mikel (Sturridge, 70); Lampard, Ballack; J Cole; Kalou, Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Alex, Belletti, Kakuta.
Fulham (4-3-2-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Etuhu 66), Hughes, Smalling, Konchesky; Duff (Riise 85), Murphy, Baird; Gera (A Johnson, 71), Dempsey; Zamora. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Nevland, Greening, Kallio. Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Chelsea Drogba; Fulham Baird.
Man of the match: Smalling.
Attendance: 41,805.Reuse content