John Mikel Obi’s first ever Premier League goal brought a joyful end to Chelsea’s 2-0 victory Fulham at Stamford Bridge, but for a long time it had been a painful struggle for Jose Mourinho’s men. On the back of criticism following a less than stellar start to his second spell in charge, and in particular a shock home defeat to Basel in midweek, Mourinho will be mightily relieved at the result, if not exactly by the performance.
After 45 minutes of uninspiring toil, Stamford Bridge breathed a sigh of relief early in the second half when an error from Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale gifted Oscar the opening goal. The lead provided Chelsea with extra confidence and with Fulham forced to chase the game, although with a conspicuous lack of belief, the hosts improved before Mikel volleyed home in the final 10 minutes following a corner. Despite the side's struggles, the result takes Chelsea to the top of the Premier League, although they are likely to be displaced within 24 hours.
The overall performance again very much reflected a team still trying to find its identity as well as struggling with its unbalance nature. Mourinho’s solace will only be enhanced given the inquisition he is set to face for leaving both Juan Mata and David Luiz out of the squad. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the coach to deny claims that he is not keen on the duo, but at least on this day he can point to the result as justification for their exclusion.
On another day, though, the result might have been very different. In the first half Darren Bent missed exactly the sort of chance that Martin Jol will have selected him to take, while former Chelsea midfielder Steve Sidwell wasted a golden opportunity to equalize.
It had been a terribly flat first-half performance from the hosts. With everything one-paced and central, Fulham’s rigid defensive shape was able to keep their opponents at bay without too much worry. Ramires and Samuel Eto’o had efforts deflected wide by Fulham’s willing defenders, while there was also a hint of penalty appeal when Sascha Riether was lucky to get away with an admittedly slight push into the back of Eden Hazard in the box.
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It was Fulham, though, for all that they were happy to sit behind the ball, that had the best chance of the half. Unlike his Chelsea counterparts, Pajtim Kasami was able to find space between the lines of midfield and defense and caught out Gary Cahill to get Bent in behind. Yet, Bent, bounced out of Aston Villa for his failure to do little else but finish, could not even provide that here and produced a tame shot that was saved by Petr Cech.
Still Chelsea listlessly tried to produce an opening. Yet everything was very rigid and predictable. Mikel and Ramires looked inhibited, whether by instruction or by pressure, to break through the lines, while the latest trio selected to fill the attacking midfield slots -- Oscar, Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle -- were equally subdued.
Things only brightened up in the final minute of the opening period when some intricate passing, perhaps overly so, saw Fulham just able to get a foot in before Branislav Ivanovic had a shot deflected wide.
Things got little better at the start of the second half, despite what were surely harsh words from Mourinho at the break. Yet, with seven minutes of the period gone, Chelsea got a most welcome of gifts from their near-neighbors. Stockdale was unable to hold Schurrle’s cross from the left and from there a goal-mouth scramble ensued. While Stockdale was able to recover to keep out Eto’o’s deflected effort, he could do nothing to prevent Oscar slamming the ball into the net from six yards.
After all their toils to get in front, Chelsea should have been pegged back just two minutes later. Kasami’s deep free-kick went over the head of Brede Hangeland and Sidwell, surprised to see the ball reach him, headed a very presentable chance wide of the near post.
That, though, would prove to be the only real threat Fulham provided to getting back on level terms. Fulham failed to adjust once their initial game plan had to be abandoned and Jol will be concerned at the lack of impetus shown by his team.
Chelsea, meanwhile, improved in the final 30 minutes as they benefited from the extra space. Substitute Fernando Torres came close to a rare goal when his near-post header produced a fine one-handed save from Stockdale. But the result was confirmed six minutes from time. When John Terry headed a corner back across the six-yard box, Mikel struck an acrobatic volley into the bottom corner to end a difficult early evening at Stamford Bridge on a welcome high note.