Claudio Ranieri is adamant that winning matches is all that matters at this stage of the season, but the truth is that his Chelsea side will have to play significantly better on Wednesday if they are to have any chance of defeating Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Champions' League. On yesterday's evidence, a first victory in 17 matches against their London rivals is improbable, not to say inconceivable.
Chelsea's galaxy of stars huffed and puffed over the line against hard-working but unspectacular opponents, and one cannot help but wonder whether Ranieri's players are starting to grow disenchanted with their manager's never-ending changes. Damien Duff, who was the best player on the field by a considerable margin, was visibly angry when he was substituted after 70 minutes. "No, look," Ranieri pleaded in that inimitable style of his, "I was just protecting Damien ahead of Wednesday. He is OK with that."
One wants to believe Ranieri, but then he also felt that his team had played well, when they clearly had not. "It was difficult against Fulham because they are well organised, but we played very, very well." Well enough to beat Arsenal? "Sometimes it is not important to play as well or better than your opponents," Ranieri said. "All that matters is making the net bulge."
Chelsea managed the feat twice yesterday. With seven minutes gone, Marcel Desailly won a 50-50 ball in central midfield before finding Eidur Gudjohnsen lurking on the edge of the Fulham area. The Chelsea striker took one touch and then, having been given the freedom of Stamford Bridge to steady himself and take aim, unleashed a thunderous left-foot strike that gave the Fulham goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, no chance.
Gudjohnsen is clearly capable of the spectacular, but continues to frustrate with his lapses in concentration. Indeed, the 25-year-old will still be wondering how he failed to double the score when he muscled his way on to John Terry's knock-down but fired high over the bar from six yards.
Chelsea were soon ruing that miss, as Fulham found an equaliser inside 20 minutes. Sean Davis was fouled on the edge of the box, providing Mark Pembridge with an opportunity from the ensuing free-kick. The Welshman did not disappoint, although his left-footed strike took a deflection off the Chelsea wall before looping beyond the diving Marco Ambrosio and into the net.
Back came Chelsea with a second goal just before the half-hour mark. The visitors' defence failed to clear their lines properly and found themselves at sixes and sevens when Frank Lampard collected the ball in acres of space 35 yards out. The England midfielder produced a stinging shot which Van der Sar did well to palm away. However, the same cannot be said of his back four, who stood still as Duff nicked the ball before applying the easiest of left-foot finishes. "We defended really poorly on both goals," said Chris Coleman. Not that their attacking play was any better. "For some reason," the Fulham manager lamented, "we didn't create anything."
Coleman said he was all the more frustrated by his side's lacklustre performance because Chelsea were so poor. "Chelsea weren't great at all and I thought they were there for the taking." Arsenal take note.
Almost inevitably, Ranieri made a change at the break. At first, the crowd assumed he had removed Jesper Gronkjaer, who had a very good first half, because the Dane was injured. But it soon dawned on them that containment was now the order of the day. The Italian pushed Lampard, who had been running the show in central midfield, out wide on the right to accommodate the substitute Scott Parker and, in so doing, disrupted the rhythm that had been found towards the end of the opening period.
True, Chelsea were enjoying the bulk of possession, but there was none of the swagger one might have expected from a richly assembled team who were leading on home soil. Duff, who was now playing in a free role, was the only player in a blue shirt looking sharp. Too many of his team-mates, most notably Géremi and Hernan Crespo, failed to make an impact.
Why, then, take Duff off 20 minutes from time? Ranieri said his star player needed to rest ahead of the Arsenal game, but how often does Arsène Wenger prevent Thierry Henry or Robert Pires from completing 90 minutes? The Republic of Ireland international was certainly bemused, shaking his head and rolling his eyes up to the sky as he trotted off the pitch to be replaced by another serial substitute, Joe Cole.
As a result of Ranieri's over-cautious second-half tactics, the game petered out, and Cole's long-range effort, comfortably saved by Van der Sar, was the sole shot on target in the entire second period.
Chelsea 2 Fulham 1
Gudjohnsen 7, Duff 30; Pembridge 19
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 41,169