At time of writing, we are currently two points off fourth-placed Arsenal, with the North Londoners kicking-off against Manchester City in a matter of hours. Third-place Spurs dropped two points with their goalless draw at Sunderland, leaving us just three points behind them after our win against Wigan Athletic yesterday. With the three sides from the capital in such close vicinity in the league table, the competition for fourth place has intensified with the impeccable form of Newcastle in sixth. With the Premier League’s in-form striker Papiss Cisse banging in the goals for the Magpies, it is time to dispel the myth that they are not contenders for Champions League football next season. Even with Alan Pardew’s public insistence that he doesn’t consider his team challengers for a top-four finish, you would have to question the mentality of a manager that expresses that same message to his players privately, given the position they find themselves in with just six games to play.
The big disadvantage for Newcastle is that they possess a vastly inferior goal difference to each of the London teams, whose stats are freakishly similar to one another (Spurs +20, Arsenal +21, Chelsea+18). And so, if the result at The Emirates later today goes Man City’s way (and thus, Chelsea’s way), then we will have a chance to creep back into the top four as soon as Easter Monday, when the shortest of away trips takes us to Craven Cottage.
Despite a flirtatious relationship with relegation ever since they first entered the Premier League some ten years ago, they do deserve begrudging credit for managing to maintain their top-flight status for such a long period. And as the following will show, their presence in the same league as their local neighbours has served up some memories….
Fulham 1-1 Chelsea, Craven Cottage, 30th September, 2001
One of the highlights of Jean Tigana’s Fulham team’s debut Premier League season. A dominant Chelsea side, managed by Claudio Ranieri, got their rewards with a first-half goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, which was cancelled out by a second-half Barry Hayles equaliser. Many will remember Slavisa Jokanovic, whose late red card did little to endear himself to a Chelsea following that already had its reservations about the midfielder.
Fulham 1-4 Chelsea, Craven Cottage, 13th November, 2004
Jose Mourinho, enjoying his debut season at Chelsea, hailed the away support at Craven Cottage as the best he’d seen since his arrival, as a scintillating second-half display saw his side run out deserved 4-1 winners. A Frank Lampard free-kick opened up the scoring, but a stunning Papa Bouba Diop volley early in the second-half levelled for Chris Coleman’s men. Then, a breathtaking run and finish from Arjen Robben preceded a William Gallas header and a strike from Tiago, to secure a result to which Coleman himself reacted by saying “luckily we don’t have to play Chelsea every week.”
Chelsea 3-1 Fulham, Stamford Bridge, 23rd April, 2005
Chasing a first Premier League title in fifty years, Chelsea went within one game of securing the trophy with this high-pressure home win. Joe Cole’s memorable turn and shot provided the lead that was quickly cancelled out by Collins John, but Frank Lampard and Eidur Gudjohnsen each struck to seal the last home win before Chelsea were officially crowned Champions at the Reebok Stadium.
Fulham 1-0 Chelsea, Craven Cottage, 16th March, 2006
A famous victory for our West-London rivals, as a fortunate Luis Boa Morte effort gave Fulham a lead that they defended well against a Chelsea team down to ten men after a William Gallas dismissal. The fixture was controversial from start to finish. Jose Mourinho infamously hauled off both Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips as early as the 26th minute, introducing Didier Drogba and Damien Duff. And after unsavoury gestures from Gallas to the Fulham faithful as he left the field following his red card, the Craven Cottage crowd celebrated at the final whistle with a pitch invasion.
Chelsea 2-1 Fulham, Stamford Bridge, 28th December, 2009
The march to the title in 2009/2010 saw our neighbours provide us with a potential festive banana-skin as Zoltan Gera’s goal gave the Cottagers an unlikely lead. They held the advantage until they succumbed to a second-half onslaught from Carlo Ancelotti’s team, as a trademark Didier Drogba header and an own goal from a certain Chris Smalling gave the Blues a vital derby win.
Fulham vs Chelsea, Craven Cottage, 9th April, 2012
With a somewhat high-profile run-in for Chelsea against the likes of Barcelona, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle, combined with the intensity of the ratio of games to days, the fact that two of the supposed ‘less difficult’ games we have left are in fact West London derbies with Fulham and QPR is yet another challenge to overcome.
With our recent form, I have a great admiration for the results that Roberto Di Matteo and this Chelsea side are achieving, but there is a growing sense that the rigidity of such a thick-and-fast and undoubtedly difficult set of games will have to take it’s toll eventually.
Certain players look more and more tired by the minute, and it is quite clear that Di Matteo will need to rotate effectively a squad that traditionally doesn’t take well to rotation.
Following the Fulham game, the squad will have a much-needed rest period of six days, and will then play seven games in twenty-one days. Furthermore, the fixtures are Spurs (n), Barcelona (h), Arsenal (a), Barcelona (a), QPR (h), Newcastle (h), Liverpool (a). The big question is, what state will the squad be in by the time we get to Anfield? Both physically and in terms of competition, it is going to take a gargantuan effort from everyone involved to pull off any kind of success from the remainder of the campaign.
Fourth-place should remain the priority, at least in my opinion. And I strongly feel that we will need to be in third or fourth place by the time the penultimate game of the league season at Liverpool comes around to stand any chance of playing in the Champions League next season. Essentially, we simply cannot drop any more league points if we are to achieve our top- four aspirations. That said, a Champions League semi-final is not a game you can viably rest any players for, and to any extent, the FA Cup semi should not be either.
I am not writing this with the intention of coming across negative about our chances, but if you look objectively at what our team is faced with for the rest of this season, the size of the task is something which needs to be taken into account. Atoning for the damage caused in the AVB era looks to be a much more difficult prospect than Guus Hiddink managed so successfully when picking up the pieces of Felipe Scolari’s reign.
With of all this said, I firmly believe that we have a team capable of turning it around, finishing in fourth, and possibly with a trophy. It will most certainly take a monster effort from all involved, and at times it will take reason, selflessness, and understanding from characters whose past contributions may have exempted them from having to display these qualities over the years.
A win against Fulham could not be more important tomorrow, and more often than not we’ve managed to get what we need from our neighbours in terms of points in crucial games. We need to pick the right side, and get the right result. Much like against Wigan, performance is secondary to results from now until the end of the season.