New year, new hope, new manager but same old failing. Fulham's ritual second-half capitulation cost them dearly in Roy Hodgson's first game in charge just as it had so fatally undermined his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez. Nine times now a lead has been squandered this season and, with that statistic, a staggering 22 points have been thrown away. But this loss will hurt most of all. As well as the points, the local bragging rights also went back up the New Kings Road as Chelsea, so abject for the first 45 minutes, turned matters around.
It will be even more painful for Fulham in that the defeat came courtesy of the softest of penalties, with Michael Ballack tumbling easily as Clint Dempsey held his shirt. It was Chelsea's stand-in captain himself who seized the ball and calmly stroked it into the net. It was also the 30th goal of the 37 Fulham have in the debit column conceded in the second half of games by the home side. "The penalty is a subject of discussion," said Hodgson, whom was taking control of his first game in England for 10 years, "but if you have any luck it wouldn't have been awarded."
Ballack, finally injury-free, took responsibility then and he took responsibility throughout the second period, dragging his team back into proceedings. Maybe Chelsea have a new player in him, as well, as they desperately search to plug the gaps that have appeared due to their horrendous injury list. That has taken another turn for the worse with the news that John Terry has suffered a setback in his recovery from a broken foot.
There was encouragement in Ballack for Chelsea's manager, Avram Gran, and there was, obviously, encouragement in the result, but as against Newcastle United last weekend, Chelsea were fortunate to win. Still, they have garnered 10 points from the Christmas programme.
The key to victory yesterday was a half-time switch in which the anonymous Steve Sidwell was withdrawn and John Obi Mikel introduced, with Grant reorganising his midfield, freeing Michael Essien of the shackles of being the holding player. "It was a bit loud in the dressing room but we saw we couldn't keep playing like we did in the first-half," Ballack said of the response of Grant and more likely that of his volcanic assistant Henk ten Cate. "At half-time when the players are sleeping, sometimes you have to wake them," Grant said. "Everything was wrong."
If the second half belonged to Ballack, the first period was Danny Murphy's. It was a tale of two midfielders. For a while Murphy pulled the strings, playing with industry and imagination. As the game ran away from Fulham, however, he became as drained as the rest of his team-mates, even if Hodgson maintained that there had been "fight, spirit, determination" until the end.
The new man was more on the mark when he questioned "the balance of the team" he has inherited. He predicted that this month, with the transfer window open, would be a busy time at Craven Cottage and it needs to be if Fulham are to survive.
Still as the opening minutes unfolded, there was encouragement. The game was taken to Chelsea, with Simon Davies a bundle of energy down the left and Moritz Volz striving down the right. It was the latter who won Fulham's penalty, even if it was cleverly constructed by Murphy, who shielded the ball, bought time and space from Ballack and released the makeshift midfielder, who cut inside Wayne Bridge before being clipped by the backtracking Joe Cole. Cole has an unfortunate habit of conceding in such a way and Murphy did not waste the chance, carefully placing his spot-kick beyond Hilario's grasp.
Poor as Chelsea were, they still created two clear opportunities. Shaun Wright-Phillips, clean through, dragged a shot wide, while Salomon Kalou's attempt to flick the ball over Antti Niemi only narrowly failed. However, in the main, the visitors over-hit passes, lacked coordination and played long-ball football. Their best hope was the set piece. Once Cole and Wright-Phillips were stood down from delivery duties, Juliano Belletti took over and suddenly Chelsea were more threatening. Bigger and more imposing, as Hodgson pointed out, they levelled when Alex met Belletti's corner and headed it back across goal for Kalou to fling himself in front of Volz to head home.
It totally changed the dynamics of the game. Eight minutes later, Ballack scored his penalty after being fouled as he attempted to reach Belletti's free-kick. Moments later he swung a free-kick of his own narrowly wide and, although Fulham tried to hit back, it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring again when Claudio Pizarro made a hash of a volley. It meant Fulham lost again.
Are they simply just not good enough? "Managers don't say that," Hodgson said. Not in public, at least. He certainly has his work cut out.
Goals: Murphy pen (10) 1-0; Kalou (54) 1-1; Ballack pen (62 ) 1-2.
Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Stefanovic, Bocanegra, Konchesky; Volz (Seol, 68), Murphy, Davis (Smertin, 70), Davies; Dempsey, Kamara (Healy, 77). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Kuqi.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Hilario; Belletti, Alex, Ben Haim, Bridge; Ballack, Essien, Sidwell (Mikel, h-t); Wright-Phillips (Pizarro, 88), Kalou, J Cole (Ferreira, 89). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Sinclair.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Fulham Stefanovic.
Man of the match: Ballack.
Attendance: 25,357.Reuse content