CARLO ANCELOTTI described this dramatic but fortunate victory over Fulham as one of the most important results of his Chelsea tenure after his team shrugged off an alarming dip in form to re-ignite their title challenge.
The result leaves Chelsea five points clear of Manchester United at the top, a statistic which on its own would suggest everything is rosy at the Bridge.
But the way Chelsea’s confidence had slid to an unfathomable low since they beat Arsenal 3-0 at the Emirates exactly a month ago was threatening to ruin their entire season, let alone their Christmas – so no wonder the Italian was relieved after Chris Smalling’s own goal sealed a high-octane comeback.
Chelsea, in fact, were a goal down after only four minutes and looked disjointed and nervy following a run of one victory in the previous six games.
But sometimes the football Gods are generous to those who keep battling.
An injury to Fulham defender John Pantsil, who was outstanding until then, allowed Didier Drogba to equalise before Smalling, making his first Premier League start, saw the ball cannon in off his knee to earn Chelsea an unconvincing but welcome victory.
Ancelotti said: “I think this is one of the most important results. This match arrived in not a good moment for us and we went down in the first half.
“But the most important thing is the direction of the team. They gave a fantastic reaction in the second half. It was not easy to change this game but we showed great determination, great will and I am happy because I think with this we finish the difficult moment.”
Only time will tell if Ancelotti is right, especially as he loses Drogba, Kalou and Mikel to the African Cup of Nations today. But having lost to Manchester City and drawn with the likes of West Ham, Everton, Birmingham and Apoel since the heady days of beating Arsenal, it’s not difficult to understand why he is so desperate for a change of fortune.
“It was not a good December,” he admitted. “Now we have to look forward to January. I’m very happy for the reaction of my team. We reacted as a team, we played together. ”
Almost to prove Ancelotti’s point Chelsea huddled together at the final whistle in a show of unity and it’s not impossible that the effects of this match could be felt for many weeks to come.
Fulham, revitalised under Roy Hodgson, gave their local rivals a real test and in the process shone a spotlight on many of Chelsea’s weaknesses, not least their discomfort with Ancelotti’s diamond formation and their lack of trust in goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Fulham went ahead after only four minutes when Paul Konchesky was left unmarked on the left-hand side of the pitch and his cross was nodded down by Bobby Zamora and flashed home on the turn by Zoltan Gera.
It is not the first time this month that Chelsea’s defence has looked wobbly with even captain John Terry affected by the malaise as he twice headed the ball out of Cech’s hands.
But the presence of Drogba saved the Blues. He twice went close to equalising in the first half and his physical battle with Pantsil was a feature of the game until the Ghanaian went off injured in the 67th minute.
At that stage Ancelotti also made a crucial substitution, bringing on striker Daniel Sturridge for the ineffective Mikel, and he was rewarded with a breakthrough in the 73rd minute.
Drogba headed home at the far post from an Ivanovic cross and two minutes later, Fulham’s world collapsed.
This time Kalou crossed low and Sturridge forced Mark Schwarzer into a fine save. But unfortunately for Fulham the ball cannoned against Smalling and, despite a last-gasp attempt to hook it away, ended up in the net.
It was cruel on Smalling who had enjoyed an excellent match until then, and there is no doubt that the absence of Pantsil was also crucial.
“He has twisted his knee,” Hodgson later revealed. “I don’t know whether he will go to the African Cup of Nations. It depends on what the scan shows and how long he’ll be out for.”
Hodgson remained upbeat about his team’s performance – and rightly so. But it was Chelsea who left Stamford Bridge believing this result could have a greater significance than just the title of champions of west London.
“The reaction of the players means the squad has a very good spirit,” insisted Ancelotti. “They wanted to win this game. It’s a very important result.”
CHELSEA: Cech, Carvalho, Ferreira (Ivanovic 64), Terry, Lampard, J Cole, Mikel (Sturridge 70), Ballack, Zhirkov (A Cole 84), Drogba, Kalou,
FULHAM: Schwarzer, Konchesky, Pantsil (Etuhu 66), Baird, Hughes, Smalling, Gera (Johnson 71), Murphy, Duff (Riise 85), Dempsey, Zamora.
Referee: Andre Marriner.
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