It is derby delight for the Blues as we win away in the Premier League for the first time in 2019, to follow up a midweek victory over other local rivals Tottenham and move five points behind the third-placed north Londoners with a game in hand. We remain sixth.
Gonzalo Higuain scored for the first time in an away Premier League game to set us on our way in today’s first half at Craven Cottage, and although relegation-threatened Fulham equalised soon after from a corner, Jorginho netted for the first time in open play for Chelsea to restore the lead.
Higuain could have had a second before the end of a first half in which his side had created the lion’s share of the chances, but was thwarted by good goalkeeping. The second half proved more closely balanced and goalless, as Fulham, for the first time under the management of Scott Parker, grew stronger. It needed a sharp save from the restored Kepa Arrizabalaga close to the end to preserve the win.
The one tinge of disappointment from our day by the river was that we could not add some more goals and boost our goal difference. Nevertheless, these were an important three points and with a home game to come next in the Premier League (after the home leg of our Europa League tie), the chance is there to maintain pressure on the teams above.
Maurizio Sarri had announced in the lead-up to the SW6 derby that either this game or the forthcoming hosting of Dynamo Kiev would bring the return of Kepa, following the keeper’s dropping for the win against Spurs on Wednesday. He decided today was the day so the Spaniard was one of five changes made as the side was freshened up after a gruelling period.
Two of those were in defence, where Emerson, who also started the Carabao Cup final a week ago, replaced Marcos Alonso and Andreas Christensen started in place of David Luiz. Ross Barkley came in for Mateo Kovacic and in the front three, midweek goalscorer Pedro was rested so there was a start for Willian.
Fulham concede goals. We knew that before the game began. No team in any of Europe’s top-five leagues have been more porous this season, so here was a good chance for three points.
The first opportunity was Higuain’s. He headed a Hazard cross well wide when Christensen behind him looked better placed and the striker’s reaction indicated he did not hear any call.
Fulham responded with six minutes played and Cesar Azpilicueta had to throw himself in the way of a shot from their skipper Tom Cairney. Joe Bryan fired the rebound wide with Kepa diving full-length.
Willian had a shot blocked but it had been a largely uneventful opening to this early Sunday afternoon game until 17 minutes were on the clock and Chelsea had a big escape.
It was a grey and windy day on the banks of the River Thames and it might have been the gusty conditions that caught Kepa out, but when he went up to claim a high ball under a challenge from Ryan Babel, he spilt it. It dropped onto the back of the former Liverpool man who to Fulham’s regret had turned his attention away to protect himself. Kepa had time to drop on the loose ball.
There was even more reason for regret for the Cottagers when Chelsea took the lead only two minutes later, and what a great move it was too!
With the attack started by Toni Rudiger, Willian out wide found the overlapping Azpi whose delivery was low, hard and perfect for Higuain to smash the ball inside the near post without breaking his run. It was the Argentinian’s first goal for a month and third for Chelsea.
The lead lasted only eight minutes however. Kepa had done much, much better than his previous contribution to keep out an Aleksander Mitrovic volley with a superb reaction save, but from the corner that followed, the Chelsea marking went very wrong. Calum Chambers was all alone when the ball was delivered long and this time Kepa had no chance.
This derby was now well and truly alive and the visitors’ lead was restored with half-an-hour played. Jorginho, the scorer, had won the ball in midfield and after Hazard had attacked space and laid it square, our no.5 side-footed sweetly into the top corner of net from the edge of the area. It was a moment for the playmaker to savour so soon after his shoot-out heartache at Wembley seven days earlier.
Higuain could, and probably should have made it 3-1 soon after having brought a ball down well but then hammered it over the bar.
Hazard hit the legs of Sergio Rico in the Fulham goal with a shot before in stoppage time at the end of the first period, the Blues very nearly pulled off an exact replica of the move and goal Higuain had already scored. Only a fantastic save by Rico denied us.
So it was 2-1 to Chelsea as the teams went in for their half-time breather. It could easily have been more and there was little to suggest there would be no further goals in the second half.
Chelsea appealed strongly for a handball in the penalty area by Tim Ream shortly after the restart but it was not given. Willian had earlier drilled a shot into the side of the net and towards the hour-mark, Hazard flashed the ball across the face of the Fulham goal as we sought a two-goal cushion.
Mitrovic went close for the home side and Kepa saved from Cairney, warning signs that the lead was still slender. The mid-period of the second half was Fulham’s strongest of the game. Sarri later highlighted the tiredness of his team after their previous two matches as a big factor in this.
It was with two minutes of the 90 left on the clock that the Cottagers came closest to snatching a point. The powerful Mitrovic was found by an early cross from substitute Floyd Ayite but a leaping Kepa got two hands to the header and kept it out. Fulham did have the ball in the net in stoppage time but Ryan Sessegnon was flagged offside.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, Christensen, Emerson; Kante, Jorginho (Kovacic 68), Barkley (Loftus-Cheek 78) Willian, Higuain, Hazard (Pedro 74).
Unused subs Caballero, David Luiz, Hudson-Odoi, Giroud.
Scorers Higuain 20, Jorginho 31
Booked Jorginho 61
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Rico; Odoi, Nordtveit, Ream, Bryan; Chambers, McDonald (Anguissa 62); Babel (Ayite 71), Cairney (c) (Vietto 80), Sessegnon; Mitrovic.
Unused subs Fabri, Christie, Seri, Le Marchand.
Scorer Chambers 28
Booked Chambers 22. McDonald 51
Referee Graham Scott