FT: Chelsea 2 Fulham 1
Chelsea came from behind to spare their blushes against west London neighbours Fulham and restore their lead at the Barclays Premier League summit to five points.
Zoltan Gera gave Roy Hodgson’s side a fairytale start at Stamford Bridge when he struck after just three minutes and Fulham looked comfortable for the first hour.
But then Chelsea moved through the gears and were rewarded with two goals in two minutes with Didier Drogba notching the equaliser before the pressure forced defender Chris Smalling to concede an own goal.
It was a cruel blow for Fulham who defended heroically until the Blues’ onslaught began to take its toll.
The 20-year-old Smalling, deputising for the injured Brede Hangeland, will feel particularly aggrieved after making a fine full debut – until he turned the ball into his own net.
Chelsea’s unconvincing performance, which was one dimensional and lacked imagination, will have given their title rivals further encouragement that the championship race is far from over.
Jose Mourinho, watching from the stands in preparation for Inter Milan’s Champions League clash against his former club, will also have been encouraged by what he saw.
Carlo Ancelotti reacted to Chelsea’s run of just one victory in five matches by making six changes.
Only John Terry remained from the back four that started the goalless drew against Birmingham with Ricardo Carvalho, Yury Zhirkov and Paulo Ferreira joining him.
Midfielders Joe Cole and Michael Ballack also returned, while Drogba and Salomon Kalou played their last matches in club colours before heading off to the African Nations Cup.
But despite the shake-up Chelsea suffered from an abysmal lack of penetration in the final third where vast reams of possession were wasted amid a flurry of mishit shots.
In contrast, Fulham were able to unpick their opponents as early as the fourth minute.
Paul Konchesky found acres of space on the left before launching a cross that deceived Terry and the England skipper watched in horror as Bobby Zamora, stationed six yards out, found Gera.
The Hungarian was stood at point blank range but still had work to do as he controlled the ball, turned and planted his shot beyond Petr Cech.
Gera celebrated with a back flip but whatever the scoreline said it was all Chelsea with Fulham struggling to string more than a couple of passes together.
Only resolute defending was keeping the blue horde at bay with Konchesky executing a well-timed tackle on Lampard as the England midfielder weaved his way into the area.
For all their possession, however, Chelsea were failing to create any chances and were becoming less of a threat as the match progressed.
Cech had to palm a shot by Clint Dempsey over the crossbar after the American had been expertly set up by Zamora, whose physical presence was causing Chelsea problems.
Referee Andre Marriner told captains Danny Murphy and Terry to speak with John Pantsil and Drogba in response to the African rivals’ running battle.
It was then Schwarzer’s turn to talk to Drogba following his challenge on Pantsil and moments later the Ivorian was floored by a kick from his nemesis after his thunderbolt had been blocked.
Chelsea enjoyed a lucky escape seconds after the interval when poorly-judged backpass by Carvalho was intercepted by Zamora, whose shot cannoned off the leg of the advancing Cech.
Schwarzer was pressed into action on the hour when he made a fine stop of Drogba’s curling effort from the edge of the area.
Fulham’s defence was finally starting to creak but two poor shots by Kalou and Lampard let them off the hook.
Chelsea replaced Mikel with Daniel Sturridge and Fulham brought on Andy Johnson for Gera as the match entered the final 20 minutes.
The equaliser finally arrived in the 73rd minute, substitute Branislav Ivanovic picking out Drogba who rose above Chris Baird at the far post to nod home.
And two minutes later Chelsea stormed ahead when Smalling, attempting to clear Schwarzer’s save of Sturridge’s shot, turned the ball into his own net for the winner.