Andre Schurrle grabbed his first Chelsea hat-trick to extend his club’s lead at the top of the Premier League with a 3-1 victory over neighbors Fulham at Craven Cottage. All three goals came in the space of just 16 second-half minutes as Chelsea decisively ended the resistance of a Fulham side, who grabbed a consolation through Johnny Heitinga but remain rooted to the bottom of the division. In contrast, the win, coupled with Arsenal’s defeat at Stoke City, means Chelsea now have a four-point edge in the race for the title.
Jose Mourinho had lamented the fact that his team were having to contest the match less than 72 hours after their draw with Galatasaray in Istanbul. And, having only made two changes to his side, there were plenty of signs of fatigue in his side’s performance. In a first-half to forget, Felix Magath, in his first match in charge at Craven Cottage, saw his side contain their illustrious local rivals with a degree of comfort. But after getting caught cold on a trademark Chelsea counter, there was no coming back for the hosts.
After their late win against Everton last weekend, this was another victory of the type that produces champions. Manchester City, six points off the top, have two games in hand, but Chelsea are in pole position heading into the final two months of the season. Meanwhile, with every passing game without a victory, Fulham’s quest to beat the drop looks increasingly far-fetched, despite being on their third manager of the season.
There were encouraging early signs for the home side, however. The first chance of the match fell their way in just the third minute when Clint Dempsey was unable to direct a header on target from eight yards out. Pajtim Kasami, who provided the cross for that opening, threatened too, when his fierce shot forced a good save from Petr Cech.
Chelsea’s best chance of the opening half was directly of Fulham’s making. Maarten Stekelenburg rolled the ball out and failed to realize that Fernando Torres was closing him down, allowing the Spaniard to block the clearance straight up in the air. Thankfully for the Dutch goalkeeper, his embarrassment was matched by that of Torres, who first failed to make contact with a pass across the box and then saw his tame shot turned wide by Stekelenburg.
Fulham’s defense had been weakened early on by Brede Hangeland having to go off to be replaced by the inexperienced Dan Burn. And the replacement, along with his center-back partner Heitinga, was exposed time and again after the break.
The opening goal arrived seven minutes after the interval. Schurrle knocked the ball off to Hazard inside his own half and charged down the left to receive the Belgian’s superb ball over the top, seemingly just onside. The forward’s header took him easily inside Burn before he finished coolly past Stekelenburg.
While Schurrle will grab the headlines, the performance of Hazard was at least equally as instrumental in Chelsea’s victory. And the former Lille man almost provided one of the assists of the season when his rabona cross went perfectly on to the head of Torres, but the attempt was deflected wide.
Still, it was not long before Hazard had his second assist. After Burn gave the ball away inside his own half, Hazard drifted toward the edge of the box and bided his time before slipping a pass through to Schurrle who again finished expertly with his left foot.
The third goal arrived just three minutes later. On this occasion Burn failed to use his height advantage to win a header against Torres, allowing the Spaniard to gain possession and immediately stick the ball through for Schurrle to this time finish with his right foot but no less decisively.
Heintinga gave the Craven Cottage faithful something to cheer when he stabbed home from close range after Chelsea failed to cope adequately with a corner, but the three points were already on their way across West London.