I went into Saturday’s SW6 derby feeling strangely confident. Though 2 wins in 16 shouldn’t inspire confidence going into a game against one of the best teams in the league, we had played well for a number of games, and hadn’t lost (or even looked like losing) a game since December 5th…
In the last game against Tottenham, we played superbly and battled our way to a hard-fought point. Chelsea have always been a team we have struggled against, but there was reason to believe we could get something out of the game, given our neighbours and their recent struggles for form. Growing up, for me it was never a choice of blue or white, but once I had found my home at Craven Cottage in 2007 it became evident that this was the game to look out for each year.
The game started and my body was filled with butterflies. It’s not a game I should expect us to win, or even a victory that will keep us up come May, but it’s a victory I wanted badly. Chelsea started the game strongest and put themselves on the front foot. They fashioned a number of decent chances and went closest through Mason Mount, who rattled the bar, and Moroccan summer signing Hakim Ziyech, who tested Areola with a low effort that fizzed past the post.
By this point, I was just hoping to get to half time with the score at 0-0, regroup and find a way to better deal with the constant waves of attack being thrown at us. However, it was as I was thinking this that we began to settle and create a few opportunities of our own. The best of these was a lovely, sweeping passing move across the pitch, which cut through Chelsea’s lines with near surgical precision with 42 minutes on the clock.
Kenny Tete pulled the ball back to leave the hit-and-miss Portuguese dynamo, Ivan Cavaleiro, with a clear shot at goal. Having scored against Spurs midweek, I backed him to tuck this away too and put us one up going into the second half. However, the ball hit his standing foot before he could make any decent contact and thus the effort was shanked wide. It was a golden chance to seize the advantage, the likes of which do not come around often in the Premier League. As such, when they come around it is imperative that they are converted. I do like Cavaleiro, but if we are to make a decent attempt at staying up, Tony Khan simply has to bring in a striker before it’s too late to do anything else, and we are left with someone who has an 8% shot conversion rate spearheading the frontline.
It turned out that the miss was simply the start of a 3 minute spell before the end of the half that would turn the game on its head. Flying left wing-back Antonee Robinson was sent off for a challenge on Chelsea stalwart Cesar Azpilicueta that was deemed reckless enough to warrant a straight red. I think it was soft compared to other reds I have seen given over the years, but that is simply the way the game is now and it is something Robinson will have to accept and learn from. It was disappointing as it brought a frustrating end to what had been the best period of our game. 3 of our 5 first half shots came in the 5 minutes prior to Robinson’s dismissal. Down to 10, and with one of the key cogs in the team missing, it was going to be an uphill battle in the second half.
For 35 minutes in the second half we defended valiantly and attacked with potency when the opportunity arose. A mix-up between Azpilicueta and the keeper Edouard Mendy presented the ball to Cavaleiro in a good area. He tried to chip goalwards but the effort was blocked by Thiago Silva. Another missed opportunity, but this time due to defensive skill (at least from one member of the Blues’ backline) rather than attacking incompetence.
With 78 minutes on the clock, Chelsea attacked again. Ben Chilwell stood up a decent cross that was unconvincingly parried by Areola into the path of Mount, who rifled a half volley low into the bottom right. Up till that point, he had been their best player on the pitch, with a performance that reminded me of David Beckham against Greece in 2001 purely in the sense that he looked like the only one capable of making something happen in a line-up filled with big-money stars. A goal was probably just reward for his individual performance, but we should feel hard-done by after doing so well to keep it level up to that point.
With the game then petering out, we sent everyone up for a free-kick to try and salvage what would have been a deserved point. The ball was headed clear and fell to the feet of Chelsea summer signing Timo Werner, a fast forward with a ridiculous scoring record in the Bundesliga for RB Leipzig. He sprinted down the pitch and found himself 1-on-1 with Areola. I was consigned to losing 2-0, a scoreline that definitely didn’t paint the full picture of the game, but he sent his effort almost hilariously wide. Had fans been allowed in, he’d have been sending one of the travelling contingent home with a used matchball. I guess it just goes to show that money isn’t always the answer.
So the game finished 1-0, and whilst we can rue missed opportunities, the application and desire showed by the team was excellent. The Fulham of just a few months ago is 3-0 down at half-time there, but we look like a completely different unit, and one that I’m beginning to love more and more with each game.
I was talking to one of my Fulham supporting friends on Saturday morning, and we were discussing where we’d rank Hodgson, Jokanovic and Parker from favourite to least favourite. Whilst Hodgson gained legendary status with his European heroics, and as such is my favourite, Parker is now tightly locked in a battle with Slavisa for second place on my list. It’s the best Fulham side I’ve seen in the Premier League for at least 8 years and despite our current situation, we should feel like we definitely have a chance of staying up this season. Given we sign a striker that is.
It’ll be another tough test against United on Wednesday, before we move on to two massive games against Brighton and West Brom that could potentially define our season.