Chelsea slumped to a disappointing 1-1 draw with local rivals Fulham on Boxing Day, leaving them 11 points adrift of Manchesters City and United at the top of the Premier League table.
After the home side took the lead through Juan Mata two minutes after half-time, Fulham deservedly pegged a goal on 56 minutes through Clint Dempsey. The Cottagers, more specifically goalkeeper David Stockdale, then somehow managed to hold on for the point despite total domination from the hosts during the last 30 minutes of the match.
Along with the returns of David Luiz and Oriol Romeu to the starting line-up, Andre Villas-Boas also brought Frank Lampard back into the side, and rested Didier Drogba for Fernando Torres, who was making his first league start in two months.
After a lethargic, tedious start to the match, the game kicked into life, if only briefly, with 14 minutes gone.
After Mata had failed to test the goalkeeper from a back-post volley, Fulham carved out their first chance of the game. Portuguese striker Orlando Sa, coming into the Cottagers side in place of Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora, headed over from eight yards when he really should have done better.
Then it was Chelsea’s turn again as Mata’s floating ball was controlled superbly on the chest by Torres only for the Spaniard to blast his shot straight as Stockdale from seven yards.
The only other notable chance of the half fell to Dempsey who dragged his shot wide; AVB’s men were restricted to long-range efforts by a good defensive display from Martin Jol’s side.
Chelsea, however, started the second-half in rejuvenated fashion, taking the lead on 47 minutes. Ashley Cole’s cross was controlled by Torres and struck well by Mata from just inside the box.
The lead came as a great relief to supporters and players alike, but didn’t last long. Brian Ruiz, gathering the ball on the right less than 10 minutes later, breezed past a flailing Ashley Cole before drilling the ball in for Dempsey, squeezed between John Terry and Luiz, to poke the ball into the net.
The only question for the rest of the game was whether the home side could reclaim their lead.
Florent Malouda was brought on for the ineffective Lampard and came close to scoring soon afterwards. Daniel Sturridge’s cross from the right was flicked on well by Terry to Malouda whose back-heel was well saved by Stockdale.
Despite his threat, having also come close with a curling shot of his own, Sturridge was taken off for Drogba with 20 minutes to go as Villas-Boas sought a crucial goal.
Good late chances fell to Drogba, Malouda and Raul Meireles but Stockdale was superb and earned Fulham a valuable point.
After a great start to the month, the last three games have been extremely disappointing as a whole. Despite being the better side in each game, three 1-1 draws, six dropped points, means, in the words of AVB, “the title will be pretty difficult now”.