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Until the last quarter hour, Chelsea and hosts Fulham had looked relatively even. Then Mark Hughes and the Cottagers decided to play for their 13th draw of the season, something they eventually got, though Chelsea came close in the final ten minutes. Micheal Essien barely missed on a header. Frank Lampard nearly ran onto a shot in the box. Didier Drogba sent a dangerous ball through the six. Fulham was almost made to pay for their bunkering.
Ultimately, Chelsea never did enough to open their account, leaving Fulham the more likely team to find a goal. A Simon Davies header barely over the bar in the 89th minute was their first shout for three points, though it was Clint Dempsey that ultimately crafted the best chance.
Running onto a long ball sent out of Fulham's third, Dempsey was left one-on-one with David Luiz, the rest of Chelsea's team recovering into defense. Dempsey backed Luiz into the penalty area, stepped-over the ball twice before going right, getting a step on his man as they went toward the line. Luiz thought he saw enough of the ball to make a play for it, but in sticking out his right leg, he brought his opponent down. Penalty in the 92nd minute, and Fulham was on their way to a win.
Danny Murphy, normally Fulham's penalty taker, had been subbed-out ten minutes earlier, leaving Dempsey to take the kick, but as the team's leading goal scorer drug his right foot through the ball, it was clear he as fatigued. Cech guessed correctly, thinking the tired man would try to drag the ball to the left post. The save was ultimately (if relatively) easy, leaving the match drawn, 0-0.
The point leaves Chelsea two points behind Spurs for fourth place and trending in the wrong direction. Their three match winning streak in league snapped last weekend by Liverpool, Chelsea now has one point from two matches they were expecting to get six. What's more, the attack went through a second straight match looking ineffectual, Fernando Torres (starting as the lone central striker) showing a daft touch through much of the first half.
In the second half, Chelsea looked better, though aside from the opening of the period, much of that was due to Fulham's tactics. The Cottagers seemed willing to play for a draw from the 70th minute on, a decision that looks foolish given what Fulham as able to accomplish near the end.
But that's Fulham. That's Mark Hughes, who now has 13 draws on the season. They stay in 12th while Chelsea stays in fifth, both teams earning a point from today's West London Derby.
In the 90th minute, while we thought Fulham was holding out for a draw, a poor pass from John Terry allowed Fulham to break into a counter attack. Ball out to Eidur Gudjohnsen, played forward to Simon Davies then wide to Zoltan Gera, the Cottagers were threatening. A cross found Davies on a near post run, the Welshman sending a header over the bar. Fulham's attack went for naught, but it severed as a reminder. Fulham could steal this match, too.
Three minutes later, that threat came to fruition. A long ball our of the back for Dempsey put the attacker one-on-one with David Luiz, who had a spectacular match. After two step-overs Dempsey beat Luiz toward the line, but when the Brazilian stuck a led out and brought his man down, Mike Dean had no choice. Penalty for Fulham.
Dempsey, with his chance to bring his goal total to 10 and win the match, stepped to the spot. But the penalty was ill-placed, off the foot of a dead tired man. Cech's dive to his right saved the ball, with Dempsey's overhead attempt on the rebound going wide.
Where we spent the match looking for Chelsea to find their goal, it was Fulham who came closest to three. Chelsea stays fifth place after a 0-0 draw that they were ultimately lucky to earn. At full-time in West London, the sides were left even.
Approaching the final 10 minutes, Chelsea is starting to generate chances. A cross from Frank Lampard almost opened the scoring, with Michael Essien just late on a header from six yards out at Mark Schwarzer's near post. A minute later, a ball headed down by Didier Drogba looked destined for a one-timer from Lampard, were it not for a great defensive play by Steve Sidwell. And then a minute after that, Drogab muscled past Chris Baird on the left, went along the byline before putting a gasp-inducing ball through the box.
You can feel the tension building at Craven Cottage, and when Ramires blistered a 24-yard shot through a packed defense and onto Mark Schwarzer, the crowd groan with the fears of a break-through goal. But as if to assuage those fears, Clint Dempsey nearly put Fulham up seconds later, with Schwarzr's punt creating a 16-yard shot for Dempsey after the U.S. international out-muscled John Terry to create the chance.
Regardless, Mark Hughes is making changes. Eidur Gudjohnsen is on for Moussa Dembele. Zoltan Gera is on for Danny Murphy. The Cottagers are out of substitutions and ready to bunker.
There's only six minutes left at Craven Cottage, the score still 0-0.
After 70 minutes, Fernando Torres is off, with Didier Drogba on, a disappointing withdraw, with Chelsea electing not to chase a match-winning goal with both Torres and Drogba. If the defending champions are going to break the 0-0 at Craven Cottage, it seems Carlo Ancelotti is unwilling to go out of his comfort zone to do so. Torres's day is done.
And with the change, Fulham has started to play as the besieged. Ten men are starting to get behind the ball, hinting the Cottagers are willing to hold-out for a draw.
Further indication of that approach came in the 74th minute, when Simon Davies came on for Andrew Johnson, pushing Clint Dempsey to a more central role. Though Deuce will play high on the pitch, Fulham's formation should collapse into a 4-6-0 in their own end, with Dempsey and Moussa Dembele defending like midfielders.
And even after Fulham switched to a more conservative approach, they were almost able to generate a chance. A ball played to Dempsey with his back to goal, 16 yards out, was laid-off for Damien Duff, the winger coming onto a left-footed shot. The former Chelsea attacker couldn't get the ball out of his feet, though, leaving the score 0-0 in the 76th minute.
It is the same point at which he came on for Fernando Torres last week, though this time, Salomon Kalou has been summoned by Carlo Ancelotti to replace Nicolas Anelka. Like his teammates, Anelka was neither bad nor good, and in that way he was indistinguishable from his Fulham counterparts.
But the move does hint at a change in shape for Chelsea, at least in attack. When Chelsea was in possession, Anelka had been coming in from the right to play in the middle of the park. In the early moments of his shift, Kalou has stayed wider, portending him having a chance to run at Carlos Salcido.
As the match approached the 71st minute, Chelsea saw speculative chances for Florent Malouda and David Luiz, neither shot coming close to goal. The biggest reason for hope, for Blues' supporters: Dider Drogba, on the bench, his warm-up pants off, getting the lacing right on his boots.
For now, Drogbe remains on the bench, with Fulham and Chelsea still tied, 0-0.
The energy with which Chelsea started the second half seemed to have dissipated by the 58th minute. Then, Fulham was able to string together passes, and when Carlos Salcido sent a ball through the right-center channel for Clint Dempsey, David Luiz had to resort to a dangerous, in-box sliding challenge to break up the play. It was a well executed challenge that never looked a penalty, but it still spoke the a change in the direction the pitch was slanted. Fulham had come into the second half.
When Chelsea gained possession two minutes later, much of their impetus was done. A pass blocked by Danny Murphy. A cross blocked by Chris Baird. Fulham was able to establish their defensive shape, and when Chelsea was unable to break through it was they did in the opening parts of the period, Ramires sent a speculative pass through to Mark Schwarzer. The `keeper swallowed up the ball and sent Fulham building another attack.
Now almost 20 minutes into the second half, the hope that Chelsea would play as their former selves has started to fade. The second half is starting to look like the first, with Fulham and Chelsea still tied, 0-0.
Chelsea's starting the second half with more spark than they even showed in the first, with a Ramires cross in the 47th minute leading to a Fernando Torres header put just over the bar. With neither side making halftime changes, Carlo Ancelotti is putting the emphasis on Torres to rebound after a poor first half.
In the 51st minute, Torres gave another indication that he was ready to do so. A ball fed through the right-center channel by Frank Lampard put Torres in the Fulham area with only Aaron Hughes between him and goal. In the first half, three similar situations led to no real threats on Mark Schwarzer. This time, Schwarzer went again untested, but in moving the ball from left foot to right to generate the needed space, Torres showed the control and confidence that had alluded him in the first half. His shot went well over the bar yet gave Blues supporters reason for hope.
Now, with Didier Drogba warming-up on the sidelines while Chelsea is starting to play with some fluidity, the possibility of the first half being no more than a poor 45 minutes is coming into focus. Nevermind the fact that poor halves are becoming disturbingly common for the Blues. The important thing today is getting three points and staying fourth in league. Now into the 54th minute, with Ramires just putting a speculative worm burner on goal, Chelsea finally looks like they have a goal in them.
It may have been his first touch of the half. Who knows? It'd been so long since Fernando Torres had last touched the ball that it may as well as been El Niño's first touch since joining Chelsea. A long ball out of the back, the product of a great read from David Luiz to break up a Fulham entry toward the Blues' box, bounced right in front of Torres in the Fulham area. Even with defenders closing the gap, Torres elected to take a touch with his left foot, a lead-footed attempt that sent the ball straight to Mark Schwarzer.
And with that, Mike Dean whistled half time, with Chelsea never meaningfully threatening Schwarzer (aside from a random, speculative shot from Branislav Ivanovic). Fulham wasn't much better, though that's the point. Chelsea is indistinguishable from Fulham, and although the Cottagers have played well of late, it's never a good state for the defending champions if their play can be readily compared with a team three points off the drop.
Chelsea must make changes at half time, and those may involve Torres. In truth, he has had a number of chances, but each time he's looked out of sorts. He has been put in decent positions three times - usually in the box, against Aaron Hughes, with time to craft a good scoring opportunity. It's not too much to say that Didier Drogba would be doing much better.
Now comes the point of the match where we wonder when Chelsea will play like defending champions. Usually, in matches like this, John Terry starts providing the impetus shortly after half time (see, Sunderland, Stadium of Light), but for a team that spent near £80 million two weeks ago, old tricks from old horses seem anachronisms. Why is does Chelsea continue to look more mediocre than any time since Roman Abramovich bought the club?
Given the down times Chelsea saw last year, that statement may be too strong, especially given Didier Drogba sits in reserve. Perhaps bringing him on for Torres in the second half will absolve Terry the need to be overly captain-like? Perhaps bringing him on for Nicolas Anelka, ending this rouse that Anelka is one of Chelsea's best attackers, would be better for Chelsea's immediate future - the rest of this season.
Even more short-sighted than that, Chelsea continues to struggle with Fulham. After ten lackluster minutes where Chelsea failed to gain the upper hand as Fulham's control waned, Branislav Ivanovic was forced to pull Clint Dempsey's shirt, drawing a yellow card, rather than let the Fulham winger beat him into the box. And on replay, it seems Chelsea may have been lucky. A Cottager supporter could argue that foul was in the box.
In the 41st minute, Chelsea's trademark referee battering comes out, one of the first signs of their frustration. Mike Dean calls John Terry over, telling the Blues captain that their pique will not be tolerated today. It's 0-0 in the 42nd minute, but it's not Mike Dean's fault.
Chelsea had a promising chance in the 17th minute, with the rebound of a block Frank Lampard shot giving Ramires a chance to run onto an uncontested shot just inside the box. The Brazilian pulled the shot wide left, a shot that would have given Mark Schwarzer little time to react should it have been put on frame.
But the missed opportunity has proved a bit of a wake-up call for Fulham, who enjoyed their best spell of the match in the minutes that followed. Fulham was able to pack the Blues into their own end and, retaining possession, set up their attacking shape for the first time tonight. The swath seemed to culminated with a knuckling shot from 24 yards off Damien Duff's left foot, an attempt that Cech could only punch clear, unable to get a good read on the ball.
Any thought the shot would be the apex of Fulham's run proved wrong, with the Cottagers able to maintain their control of play into the 27th minute. Then, a set piece was easily caught by Cech, punted for Fernando Torres, with Chelsea gaining possession of the ball headed out of Fulham's back.
It was the first time since the beginning of the match that Torres had been relevant, though barely so. The Chelsea striker made little attempt to win Cech's ball, and when, two minutes later, a ball was crossed from the right, Torres was weak side of the play.
That cross led to Frank Lampard going four feet high of the crossbar from 15 yards. Though the shot wasn't close, it was still telling that Chelsea was able to generate space for Lampard in the middle of Fulham's box.
Still, the match at Craven Cottage remains scoreless: Fulham 0, Chelsea 0, now in the 30th minute.
In the match's ninth minute, Chelsea finally started to look a bit like themselves, with the team's center halves spurring the attack. David Luiz, getting his first Chelsea start, carried the ball into the final third, fending off multiple challenges, before playing wide right to Branislav Ivanovic. When the ball was brought back in from the right, it was John Terry who took the play back into the attacking third, eventually giving up the ball before proceeding into the penalty area. There he was eventually targeted by Ivanovic, heading a ball down that was eventually cleared. A second cross for Terry was less precise, allowing Aaron Hughes to clear.
That run's allowed Chelsea to gain control of the the match after a relatively even first eight minutes, with Fulham's pressure having subsided as they try to maintain their shape in their own half. The Blues are now able to move the ball along their back line with ease, looking for entry routes into attack as Nicolas Anelka shows for the ball in the middle of the pitch.
When Fulham creates a turnover, they're attacking quickly, the last chance coming through Andy Johnson. The forward carried the ball into the final third and, though he had Damien Duff alone on the wing, elected to take a speculative shot from 20 yards out.
A block by John Terry kept Petr Cech from being threatened. Now in the 16th minute, Fulham and Chelsea remain even, 0-0.
Early at Craven Cottage, we see what the team selection hinted. Chelsea has reverted to their 4-3-3, with its only twist being at the base of midfield. That's where Michael Essien will play in what is normally Mikel John Obi's spot. Ramires will play on the right side of Chelsea's offset central midfield.
Through the first two minutes, Chelsea dominated possession, though good pressure from Fulham kept Chelsea from being comfortable on the ball. As a result, neither team has asked a serious question of the other team's defense.
Since, Fulham has twice tried to attack down their left side - once with left back Carlos Salcido carrying the ball, the other attempt by Clint Dempsey. Perhaps it's those players that have influenced Mark Hughes's early tactics. Perhaps it's just a small sample. Regardless, it would be curious of Fulham felt more comfortable trying to break through Branislav Ivanovic than Ashley Cole.
Now in the sixth minute, Fulham's first meaningful attack comes down the right, with Nicolas Anelka losing the ball in midfield, creating a counter attack chance. Cole was caught up the pitch, opening up Chelsea's left, allowing Damien Duff to get deep before crossing through the six. David Luiz got between Andrew Johnson and goal, deflecting a chance above the bar for a corner.
Thus the match stays scoreless, now in the eighth minute: Fulham 0, Chelsea 0.
Saturday's win by Tottenham at Sunderland puts the pressure on Chelsea, at Craven Cottage for today's West London Derby against Fulham. The Blues are now three points behind Spurs, who temporarily hold sole possession of fourth place, England's final 2011-12 Champions League spot. A draw or a loss, and Chelsea stays in fifth, giving their season an entirely new dimension. Though 26 matches, they'd be chasing Champions League.
Against a Fulham team that has seven points in their last four, a road draw may not be the worst result. Mark Hughes is slowly guiding his team out of a relegation battle, one they had embraced after a season's start that saw the Cottagers fall in love with draws. Since the calendar turned, the Cottagers are 5-2-2, three points clear of the drop, leaving their magnanimous ways in September and October.
For Fulham, the key looked to be how Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland dealt with Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba. Now comes word that Drogba will not be in the starting XI, with Florent Malouda in a team set to return to Chelsea's 4-3-3. This could be looked at as a logical decision for Carlo Ancelotti, seeing how his Torres-Drogba tandem failed last weekend against Liverpool. It could also been seen as a reprieve for Fulham, who may have been reluctant to play three central defenders while also lacking a Lucas Leiva-like presence at the base of midfield.
For Chelsea, they'll have to contend with Clint Dempsey. To do so, Ancelotti has brought David Luiz into the team, an inclusion which pushes Branislav Ivanovic to right back, with José Bosingwa out. Ivanovic should be able to dominate Dempsey in the air, where Dempsey has proved increasingly threatening. When Dempsey comes in off the wing, Ivanovic will get help from Ramires, in for Mikel John Obi, and Michael Essien.
SB Nation will have live updates throughout the match, which kicks-off at 3:00 p.m Eastern. Here are the teams:
Fulham, Starting XI: Mark Schwarzer - Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Brede Hangeland, Carlos Salcido - Damien Duff, Steve Sidwell, Danny Murphy, Clint Dempsey - Andrew Johnson, Moussa Dembele. Bench: David Stockdale, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Zoltan Gera, Simon Davies, Jonathan Greening, John Pantsil, Stephen Kelly.
Chelsea, Starting XI: Petr Cech - Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz, John Terry, Ashley Cole - Michael Essien, Ramires, Frank Lampard - Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Torres, Florent Malouda. Bench: Ross Turnbull, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Jacopo Sala, Mikel John Obi, Josh McEachran, Paulo Ferriera
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