Chelsea debutant Franco Di Santo was the focus of attention on Monday night at Griffin Park and made an instant impact. The 18 year-old Argentinian played a part in both Chelsea goals as the Blues mounted a strong second half comeback to earn a deserved point against a spirited and talented Fulham team.
A bumper crowd turned out for the local derby, and they were joined by a number of Chelsea management staff including Avram Grant, Frank Arnesen, Steve Clarke and Henk Ten Cate. They saw an attacking Chelsea team named by Brendan Rodgers, with Ben Sahar back in the reserve fold on the right of a front three with Scott Sinclair on the left, both hoping to impress ahead of next weekend’s FA Cup tie against Huddersfield. With the likes of Worley, Bridcutt and Pettigrew on spells at football league clubs, Jimmy Smith was the surprising choice to partner Carl Magnay at centre-back, the usual-attacking midfielder also captaining the side as the most senior player.
Fulham, as expected, named a strong team. Premiership players Elliot Omozusi and Ian Pearce were joined in defence by new signing Toni Kallio, Seol Ki-Hyeon played with Simon Elliott in midfield, and new American hitman Eddie Johnson was given a run-out having not played competitively since the end of the MLS season.
As you may expect from a local derby, the match started with a frantic pace, Chelsea led by the impressive Jacob Mellis, although he was to blow hot and cold for the remainder of the half. Fulham had the best of the early chances, Johnson driving in down the right hand side and crashing a shot into the side netting. The first major incident of the match came after just ten minutes, as a Fulham corner fell to Elliott on the edge of the box. The experienced New Zealand international thundered a full volley without allowing the ball to bounce, only to see his spectacular effort crash off the post. Johnson then forced a save from Taylor before Ben Sahar had Chelsea’s first shot at goal, a 20 yard low effort forcing Ricardo Batista into a smart save.
Former Chelsea player Ian Pearce then went close for Fulham with another good shot before the Cottagers took a 27th minute lead. Michael Timlin’s near post corner found the head of the Korean international Seol, and he beat Rhys Taylor at the near post. The goal settled Fulham, but not for long, as Batista then had to be quick off his line to smother Sahar breaking through on goal. In first half stoppage time Sinclair, quiet for much of the half, drove inside and hit a 25 yard effort which Batista again saved well.
The hosts flew out of the blocks in the second half and would have been level from a Sahar effort had it not been for a smart deflection off a Fulham heel. It was a big moment, as Fulham went down the other end and extended their lead to two, a wonderful free kick from the left foot of Timlin. Questions could be raised both about Taylor’s wall and positioning but nothing should be taken away from the quality of the Irishman’s strike.
If Chelsea were to get anything out of the game they needed to get back into things quickly, and they wasted no time, reducing the deficit within two minutes. After Sinclair had an attempt spectacularly saved by the impressive Batista, Chelsea won a free kick out on the right wing. Sinclair drove it in low towards Di Santo, and as the ball bundled around, Smith slammed home from six yards. It was the team’s first goal since October.
Chelsea took control of the game and were by far the more dangerous of the teams, Fulham only looking dangerous on the counter attack with Johnson. Sahar went close again just after the hour, then Fulham’s Nathan Ashton was lucky to escape only with a booking after a dangerous tackle from behind on substitute Miroslav Stoch, who had escaped neatly from the attentions of Wayne Brown.
With the end of the game closing in, Kakuta was thrown on for Cummings, leaving Chelsea playing an attacking 3-2-5 formation with only Magnay and van Aanholt as recognised defensive players on the pitch. It left them a little prone to Fulham breaks, and first Ashton broke into the box but wasted time trying to get the ball to his stronger side, and then Taylor saved very well from Johnson.
With mere seconds remaining in normal time, Chelsea won a corner. Sinclair sent in towards Magnay, who couldn’t get a great purchase on his header. Di Santo collected the ball and prodded a weak effort at goal. Kakuta was standing on the goal line and attempted to back-heel the ball in. Whether he or Ashton made any contact is still under debate but the ball somehow found its way over the line for Chelsea’s dramatic equaliser. No doubts, the debut boy will be claiming that goal if he can.
Rodgers’ boys could even have won the game deep into stoppage time, Sinclair’s 25 yard free kick well saved by a full-stretch Batista, but the comeback was to stop at 2-2, and a probable fair reflection of a thoroughly entertaining game at Brentford.
Di Santo worked hard taking his first steps in English football, and will come into games a lot more as he gets more under his belt. Sahar was very impressive from a wide right position, showing strength, skill, and the ability to get shots off. Mellis was very good in the middle of the park early on and for parts of the game, but also had too many casual moments and gave the ball away a bit too often. Magnay was superb at the back, and Jimmy Smith did extremely well in his first appearance in the position alongside him, going up against an experienced US international. Chelsea can take a lot from this game, and hopefully the on looking senior management will have taken just as much.
Team: Taylor, Cummings (Kakuta 80), Magnay, Smith ©, van Aanholt, Woods (Stoch 60), Mellis, Tejera, Sinclair, Sahar, Di Santo.
Goals: Smith 53, Di Santo 90
Images courtesy of Dan Davies. More from the game can be viewed here.