Well-rested after playing just 45 minutes in their defeat against Liverpool on Sunday, a hopefully contrasting Chelsea will host Fulham on Wednesday night. The first-half no-show saw Fernando Torres punish the Blues to the tune of a 0-2 deficit, while an impotent second period frustrated and dismayed in equal measures. Meanwhile, close neighbours Fulham enjoyed a happier – if no less uncomfortable – Saturday, with Brede Hangeland netting a last-minute equaliser at home to Aston Villa, who had led 1-0 from the end of the first-half.
Fulham have so far had a typically Fulham-ish season. Mark Hughes’ side sit firmly mid-table in 13th, having won just two games from a possible thirteen. Both victories came at home, with four draws and a defeat all the Cottagers can show from their travels. Incidentally, those wins came against Wolves and Wigan, both of whom currently reside in the relegation zone of the Premier League. Fulham’s last away win in the league actually came on the opening day of the 2009/10 season, with Bobby Zamora’s 13th minute goal the difference between his side and Portsmouth at Fratton Park.
Of Fulham’s thirteen league goals this season, five have come away from home, two of which were scored by Clint Dempsey, who incidentally is Fulham’s top scorer with four in total.
Carlos Salcido is a fresh injury worry for Hughes, after the Mexican left-back picked up a knock in the Villa draw. Zamora and Phillip Senderos are long-term absentees.
Chelsea will be hoping that Michael Essien will return to the starting line-up after he missed the Liverpool defeat, contributing to a slightly lightweight midfield. Fellow midfield general Frank Lampard will definitely miss out however, while Yossi Benayoun is the only other crocked star on the sidelines at the moment.
Barring a few minor blips in the past few seasons, Chelsea usually welcome a match against Fulham. Last season saw a double victory over the side from Craven Cottage, with a 2-0 away win in August 2009 followed up with a slightly nervy 2-1 win just after Christmas. Zoltan Gera opened the scoring inside the first five minutes, and it took until the last quarter of the game for the Blues to get back on level terms, with Didier Drogba equalising on 73. A little under two minutes later, a Chris Smalling own-goal meant that the soon-to-be Manchester United bound defender handed the home side all three points at Stamford Bridge.
While Fulham haven’t beaten Chelsea at the Bridge since 1979, they did come out on top back in an infamous game at Craven Cottage in March 2006. Luis Boa Morte’s 17th minute goal saw then-Chelsea boss José Mourinho haul off the unimpressive Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole a little under ten minutes later, to be replaced by Drogba and Damien Duff – now a Fulham player. They failed to make a difference either, however. William Gallas’ last-minute red card put the icing on the cake.
The referee for Wednesday’s game, Martin Atkinson, was somewhat of a lucky charm for Chelsea last season. In the four Blues matches he officiated in last season – all at Stamford Bridge – Chelsea won all four without conceding, including wins against Liverpool and Manchester United, not to mention the final-day trophy-winning 8-0 romp over Wigan. Coincidentally, Atkinson was also the man in the middle for Fulham’s aforementioned win at Pompey.
So far this campaign, Atkinson has shown four red cards in his eleven games, including the dismissal of Ryan Shawcross during the Stoke V Sunderland match on Saturday. During his one Chelsea game this season, a 2-0 win also against Stoke, he awarded the Blues a 77th minute penalty, and booked two Stoke players.
Ultimately, it will be down to the Chelsea players to show their mettle and recover from the Liverpool defeat by sending out a message to their title rivals against Fulham. Barring any major disasters, Fulham’s long barren streak away from home should continue at the Bridge on Wednesday, and it represents a big chance for Ancelotti’s side to again dazzle in front of their own fans. The away form can be patchy, but at home the Blues are largely unstoppable.