A return to Stamford Bridge for Claudio Ranieri only ended up bringing a return to winning ways for Chelsea, but not without a few reminders of why the Italian is so admired here and why he remains a manager to be respected. Ranieri’s new team very often made this a nervy afternoon for his old one, who recovered from their first defeat of the season to Tottenham Hotspur last week with a 2-0 victory.
It thereby offered enough suggestions that this season won’t be quite as tense for Fulham. They may remain at the bottom of the table, but Ranieri seems to have already made them a more serious and less fragile side.
Maurizio Sarri meanwhile may have another problem of his own, although one he will like: how to arrange that Chelsea midfield. Ruben Loftus-Cheek offered his own reminder of why so many want him in the team, as he came off the bench to seal the victory with a fine goal to add to Pedro’s.
Then there was N’Golo Kante – himself the source of debate lately.
Ranieri of course knows the French midfielder well, but also knows there’s not all that much you can do against him when he’s on his game. Kante certainly looked on his game here, and went someway to helping seal the game after just four minutes.
His contribution was peak Kante. Having first won the ball through his relentless energy, he then rampaged forward with it, finding Pedro at the corner of the six-yard box. The Spanish forward displayed his own inherent qualities, checking back to supremely finish past Sergio Rico.
It was a timely moment for some peak Kante, too, since this was a week when the lingering debate about the make-up of Sarri’s midfield came into focus. The argument has been that the Italian’s use of Jorginho as the pivot neuters Kante’s best qualities, and has taken away one of Chelsea’s most potent forces. That wasn’t the case here, although some of that might well have been down to how surprisingly open Fulham were.
Ranieri wasn’t returning to Stamford Bridge to just sit deep. It was quite the opposite. Fulham played remarkably high, with four players often pressing at the edge of the Chelsea 18-yard box that did bring some nervy moments for the home team. Kepa was almost caught by Aleksandar Mitrovic as he and his defence admirably persisted in playing the ball out from the back, even if it did bring a few individual errors.
It was individual errors that cost Ranieri and Fulham, though, because their overall display was solid, productive and promising. Calum Chambers was used in a novel defensive midfield role, but did more than just add a bit of ballast, as he almost brought an equaliser. Kepa had to pull off a brilliant close-range save to keep out the former Arsenal player’s header from a corner.
On another day, Fulham would have been value for a point. A few more weeks under Ranieri, and they should start accumulating many more points.
There were still no individual errors to match substitute Alvaro Morata’s latest miss. On to replace Olivier Giroud – who missed his own opportunity earlier in the game – the Spaniard showed he still isn’t quite on form despite some recent goals, as he skied one shot over Rico’s goal when it would have been easier to score.
That threatened to make it nervous for Chelsea, until another substitute in Loftus-Cheek followed through on his own threatening play. On 82 minutes, the midfielder surged into the Fulham box to get on the end of a Pedro-Eden Hazard interchange and finish well.
That was Fulham finished on the day, too, but it already feels something more promising has started under Ranieri. Chelsea, meanwhile, are back on track.
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