You can control, even dominate a game for large parts of proceedings. What you can’t do, however, is win if you don’t put the ball in the back of the net. Despite Chelsea playing very well throughout, Fulham scored at the death in each half of the game and came out winners by 2-1 on a fine, if chilly evening at Craven Cottage.
With Paul Clement once more on first-team duty for tomorrow night’s Champions League clash at Liverpool, Dermott Drummy was in charge. He was able to call upon the European cup-tied Ricardo Quaresma to lend experience to a young team, which had Adam Phillip start in attack and Sam Hutchinson in defence for the first time since injury in October. Fulham had a mix of youth and first-team overflow, with Diomansy Kamara and Erik Nevland at the business end of the pitch.
Chelsea were on the front foot from the off, with Patrick van Aanholt moving into good areas up the field and Frank Nouble attempting to get in behind Fredrik Stoor. Hutchinson surged forward and slid an inviting ball into Nouble, showing no signs of fatigue or injury, a positive step. It was Nouble who had the first chance of the game, cutting inside from the wing and driving a low shot to the near post, one which was comfortably saved by the former Swiss international Pascal Zuberbuhler.
Fulham had been quiet, rarely threatening the back four, marshalled by Hutchinson, let alone Jan Sebek, earning another start following his clean sheet last time out. Julian Gray sent a shot high and wide, before the young Czech was finally tested by Giles Barnes, who broke free but shot a tame effort low and not very dangerous. The hosts were struggling to get control of the game in the middle of the park, which says much about the fantastic game Liam Bridcutt was having. The Chelsea captain was always available for a pass, constantly on the move, and used it well whenever in possession.
For all the control the Blues had, it was a simple mistake which gifted the Cottagers a half-time lead they barely deserved. As the clock ticked into stoppage time a deep cross from the right was headed back into the mix by Gray, and Jeffrey Bruma’s attempted clearance missed the ball entirely. From six yards out, the predatory Nevland didn’t need a second invitation to crash the ball into the net. He looked ever so slightly embarrassed that he’d been presented with such an easy chance, but Billy McKinlay’s charges led.
Changes followed at the resumption of the game, with Hutchinson making way for Ben Gordon, a useful and impressive 45 minutes under his belt. Gordon slotted into left-back, with van Aanholt making it a Dutch core to the centre of defence. Fulham introduced full-back Karim Laribi, who was most impressive against Chelsea’s Under-18s last month, and forward Michael Uwezu, a squattish, bulldog of a player. The game continued in much the same vein though, Chelsea in control.
It was more probing control this time though, with the emphasis on quick movement of the ball across the field. This stretched the hosts, and allowed Quaresma to come into a game he’d been on the periphery of. His jinking runs down the right worried left-back Alex Smith, but the Fulham penalty area was all too sparsely populated in blue numbers. On the other side, Nouble came inside for another shot, but unlike his earlier attempt went high into the empty Hammersmith End stand.
Just past the hour mark, Chelsea got the equaliser they deserved. Despite warnings of imminent pressure from at least two team-mates, midfielder Matthew Saunders was caught in possession some 25 yards from his own goal. Brazilian veteran Mineiro robbed the youngster of the ball and kept his composure to roll it past Zuberbuhler, who was livid that his warning was not heeded. Regardless, it was more than Drummy’s team deserved, and a nice moment for Mineiro, who has been a calming force and stand-out performer for the Reserves this season.
Within minutes it should have been 2-1 to Chelsea. Quaresma went down the wing again and had bodies to cross to. A goalmouth scramble followed where somehow Phillip and Borini both failed to convert from close range, the Italian seeing his shot cleared off the line before an offside flag rendered the chance dead. A corner soon followed, where Nouble’s glancing header flicked wide, and then Quaresma flashed a 25-yard free-kick wide of an unflustered goalkeeper.
Fulham had their moments but they were few and far between. One such moment however did cause worry in the Chelsea ranks and reminded them this game was still theirs to lose. A long searching ball appeared to be going wide, as Sebek left it. Substitute Danny Hoesen hadn’t given up the ghost though, and athletically headed the ball back towards goal, hitting the outside of the post. It served as a pick-me-up which they channeled through Barnes, and it was the man on loan from Derby who was to have almost the final say.
He picked the ball up deep and charged through a tiring midfield into the area. The shot was well saved by Sebek but he couldn’t hold it, and the loose ball fell to Uwezu, who beat fellow Ghanaian Ofori-Twumasi to tap the ball in and win the game in second half stoppage time. There were seconds left for Chelsea to respond but they were unable to, and a disappointing result was all they had to show for a good performance and a lot of effort.
Bridcutt was absolutely outstanding all game and showed that he really is wasted at Reserve level, needing a real chance in the Championship next season. Mineiro was his ever-effective self, whilst van Aanholt and Phillip looked good at times too. Borini was quiet, as he has been of late, but there weren’t many bad performances. Just an unfortunate result. That’s football for you.
Team: Sebek, Ofori-Twumasi, Bruma, Hutchinson (Gordon 45), van Aanholt, Mineiro, Bridcutt (c), Nouble (Mellis 80), Quaresma, Phillip, Borini
Goals: Mineiro 60