David Luiz's opening goal was extraordinary but from then on it was a win of efficiency and control for Chelsea. Rafael Benitez manages his teams to peak at the right time and they look like doing exactly that, riding out some early pressure to win 3-0 at Craven Cottage and stride ahead of the pack chasing Champions League qualification.
Chelsea are now third, one point ahead of Arsenal, with a game in hand, three points ahead of Tottenham, with them yet to come to Stamford Bridge, and five ahead of Everton. Having won four of their last five in the Premier League, they must now be favourites to finish in the top four. And they have a Europa League semi-final against Basel to look forward to as well.
There is a growing feeling at Chelsea that for all the tension and friction of the season it may well end with success. The reign of the interim manager only has a few more busy weeks to run and the vocal Chelsea fans in the Putney End let Benitez know that he would not be missed. They would be more than open to the return of Jose Mourinho, with suggestions from Spain that he would leave Real Madrid this summer. Manuel Pellegrini of Malaga is also under consideration.
But Benitez, three days after Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup, is for now only focused on these two competitions. This was a night for his alternative team with John Terry, Frank Lampard and Fernando Torres coming into the side which lost to Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday. It might not have been his strongest XI but it had more than enough experience, in those players, and quality, in Juan Mata and Luiz, to win the game.
The match was over, effectively, once Chelsea were ahead. With half an hour gone Fulham allowed Luiz to carry the ball unchallenged within 40 yards of their goal. That is affordable against most opposition centre-backs but not the remarkable Brazilian, who accepted the invitation and hit the ball with exceptional clarity and force into the far top corner of the goal. Once Chelsea were ahead they result was never in doubt.
Before that, though, Fulham had been the brighter side. Martin Jol is having to constantly improvise in midfield but Urby Emanuelson and Eyong Enoh were both sharp from the outset and the hosts could have taken the lead. Bryan Ruiz somehow turned Sascha Reither's early cross over, Giorgios Karagounis hit the bar and John Arne Riise shot meekly at Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal. Fulham could even have had a numerical advantage; Branislav Ivanovic greeted Mladen Petric with both sets of studs by the corner flag and was lucky only to be booked.
Martin Jol was understandably frustrated that these chances were missed. “The first 30 minutes our possession game was good,” the Fulham manager said. “We played the four attacking players and had a good go at them. I'm disappointed that we didn't capitalise.”
For Benitez, the opening spell was the one frustration on an otherwise comfortable night. “We have had much better games than this one,” he admitted. “We were good, but they had some good chances before half-time. They went close but we improved defensively in the seocnd half. We had more control then.”
After Luiz's spectacular intervention this performance went precisely to Benitez's plan. Fulham's defensive laxity was punished again two minutes before the interval. Mata, almost too good to be rotated, swung in a perfect cross, John Terry ran between Philippe Senderos and Riether and headed powerfully past Mark Schwarzer. It gave Mata his 30th assist of the season and Chelsea a 2-0 lead which their incisiveness warranted.
In the second half Chelsea's plan was simple. Victor Moses, much more effective when playing on the break, induced a late challenge from Senderos which saw him booked. Another flowing attack nearly brought a third when Torres' cross evaded Mata at the far post by inches.
Chelsea's fans spent the second half reminding everyone that they were European champions and their team closed out the game with appropriate ease. Fulham had one chance which they vandalised for themselves: Senderos' goal-bound header was somehow cleared over the bar by an offside Petric.
Chelsea immediately showed Fulham how it was done. Moses forced a corner, Mata curled it in, Torres headed it at goal from the near post and this time their man on the line, Terry, put it into the net.
It was the captain's second goal of the night but even he must accept Benitez's rotation policy. Chelsea have trips to Liverpool on Sunday and Basel next Thursday and Terry may well play one but presumably not both. “The most important thing is the team,” insisted Benitez afterwards. “Every player wants to play every game, but they have to realise they can't do that, and be 100 per cent in each game.”
With that 3-0 lead Benitez could take off Hazard and Mata - more likely to stay in the team - to rest their legs for Sunday, and all the challenges at home and abroad, that still await.
Man of the match Mata.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
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