The fates of Chelsea and Fulham are still to be confirmed. But after a win that sees Chelsea move within two points of third-place Leicester City and six ahead of West Ham, they may feel more certain of Champions League football next season.
As Fulham nurse a 17th defeat of the campaign, they exude a similar certainty, albeit much bleaker. Another willing, yet defensively slack and ultimately fruitless display means they now have just four games to make up a nine-point gap between themselves and Newcastle and Burnley, who are both still to play in this round.
Relegation is not yet confirmed, but a sucker punch from Kai Havertz’s brace, early in the first and second half, deflated enthusiasm while highlighting the gulf between these two sides, and the glaring shortcomings from Scott Parker’s men at this level. Victory should have come by a greater margin, but Thomas Tuchel will be satisfied by a matter-of-fact performance from all involved ahead of next week’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid back here at Stamford Bridge.
The only extra consideration may be whether to go with Havertz from the start. The £71million signing started the first leg on the bench, though came on as a substitute in the 1-1 draw. The grace of his movement and his slickness of touch was a reminder of his class. And though basing decisions on how to combat 13-time European Cup winners from a team who have won just five times this season is perhaps a bit foolish, it was a timely reminder of just how talented the 21-year-old is. Something that has not been totally out in the open considering his two goals here were as many as he managed in his first 24 appearances in the league.
There was plenty stacked against Fulham here. The last time they went to Chelsea and won was October 1979, and a five-match winless run containing four defeats suggested they were unlikely to rectify that. History and form were not in their favour.
But the 13-day gap since conceding a dispiriting late equaliser against Arsenal gave them a slim advantage over the three-day preparation Thomas Tuchel’s side had after Tuesday’s game in Spain. And the visitors started as the more energetic of the two, hounding an XI with five changes.
Bodies were committed into the attacking half to shut down space. Billy Gilmour, making his first Premier League start since last July, was given a swift recap of the rough-and-tumble at this level. Balls were won high, shots taken, corners accrued.
Unfortunately, it was an approach skewered after just 10 minutes. A long, straight ball from Thiago Silva, cutting out Fulham’s press, was plucked out of the sky by Mason Mount and threaded to Havertz beyond the defence. His shot to the far corner carrying enough power to reach its destination even after Alphonse Areola got his left foot to the strike.
Seven minutes later Havertz thought he’d scored another, again found in space by Mount. Alas, the German was offside but the ease with which Chelsea were able to cut through those in white increased the anxiety felt by Scott Parker.
There was comfort, though, when the teams went in at half-time with Chelsea still that one goal to the good. Hakim Ziyech should have notched the second when Werner raced freely towards goal and squared across for the Moroccan to finish into a largely unguarded net. His strike - firm and down the middle - was brilliant saved by a desperate Areola flinging himself in harm’s way.
There was also heart to take from Fulham’s forward work, which brought the best out of Edouard Mendy. The goalkeeper was fully stretched to keep out a fizzing strike from Ademola Lookman midway through the first-half and his dexterity was given a stern test with the final action of the period when an Ola Aina strike deflected to his left when he was moving to his right. The readjustment was successful, as was the firm wrist that took the ball beyond Bobby Decordova-Reid lurking for scraps.
But, typical of Fulham this season, what encouragement they garnered was made obsolete very quickly. Havertz picked up his second four minutes after the restart, another moment Fulham had no answer for. A checked back dribble from Havertz was followed by an offload to Werner, who completed a one-two with his compatriot breaking into the box. Areola rushed out, but Havertz remained calm and delivered a deft side-foot finish to roll the ball into the back of the net.
With that, the game was done. The remaining 41 minutes played out as a warm down for one and a dispiriting endeavour for the other. Fulham did not give up. They kept shifting the ball quickly, contested as best they could and never stopped running. They registered 10 shots, twice as many as Chelsea, and may feel unlucky to have come away without even a consolation.
Maybe early in the season such a performance would be described as “encouraging”. But as we ticked over into May, it was simply another example of how Fulham have been good, but not good enough.
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