In the visiting dugout, Claudio Ranieri span on his heels and vented to the heavens. He had seen this script before and in the heady days of Leicester City’s title push, he was usually the director of the piece. This time, however, the plot was agonising.
On the centre-circle, N’Golo Kante appeared in a flash, picking the pocket of Fulham’s expensive summer signing Jean-Michel Seri and he was, by now, speedy towards the penalty area. The worst was yet to come but Ranieri knew Kante would make the right call.
The Frenchman powered on, teeing up Pedro Rodriguez,, who jinked inside Maxime Le Marchand and clinically dispatched the finish. Inside four minutes, Fulham were a goal down and Ranieri was undone by a player he knows better than most.
Chelsea were up and running from almost the word go with Pedro providing a smart finish from close to give them the lead
Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench and kept his cool inside the box to slot home and double Chelsea’s advantage
The Chelsea players run over to celebrate with the English midfielder after his goal wrapped up the three points for them
MATCH FACTS, LIVE LEAGUE TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa 7; Azpilicueta 6, Rudiger 6.5, Luiz 6, Alonso 5.5 (Zappacosta 78); Kante 7, Jorginho 6, Kovacic 6 (Loftus-Cheek 67, 7); Pedro 7.5, Giroud 5.5 (Morata 70, 5), Hazard 6.5
Subs not used: Caballero, Fabregas, Willian, Christensen
Manager: Maurizio Sarri 7
Scorers: Pedro (4), Loftus-Cheek (82)
Booked: Azpilicueta, Morata
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Rico 6.5; Christie 5.5, Odoi 6, Mawson 6, Le Marchand 5.5; Chambers 6.5, Seri 4.5; Sessegnon 5 (Kamara 45, 6), Cairney 6 (Kebano 76, 6), Johansen 6 (Ayite 45, 6); Mitrovic 6
Subs not used: Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Cisse
Manager: Claudio Ranieri 6
Referee: Craig Pawson 6
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For Kante’s new manager Maurizio Sarri, it was a reminder of Kante at his most effective after the Italian criticised his performance at Tottenham last week but also proof that the midfielder can influence games even in his newly adapted role.
If Ranieri needed it, this one moment encapsulated much of what has derailed Fulham in the opening months of this campaign. Fulham had actually started the match on the front foot and their general play was impressive for much of this game.
Yet the best-laid plans of Slavisa Jokanovic were often undermined by individual lapses and so it was here for Ranieri. Seri’s mistake, caught sleeping in the centre of midfield, was fatal and such moments explain why Fulham are the only one of the 92 league sides in English football still to keep a clean sheet this season.
Bottom of the Premier League, Fulham have taken only one point on the road but this is not a fixture that Ranieri will have earmarked for season-defining results. It is, on paper, a derby game but this felt more like an old school reunion as Ranieri returned to the club where he launched his Premier League managerial career and the stadium where Leicester sealed the title – courtesy of Eden Hazard’s goal against Tottenham.
Alvaro Morata spurns a golden chance to score by blasting over a rebound from close range after coming off the bench
Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud slides in and stretches his leg to turn the ball goalwards but his effort is saved in the first half
Kepa Arrizabalaga gets down well to make a superb save from Callum Chambers’ header to keep Chelsea’s lead intact
Chelsea winger Pedro does his defensive work and gets back on the line to clear it away before Denis Odoi can score
Pedro winces in pain and holds his chest after taking a whack off Fulham defender Odoi as he cleared the ball
Friends were reunited in the dugout, as Ranieri only recently spent a week observing Sarri’s methods at Chelsea’s training ground, while Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini – now part of Sarri’s backroom staff – were once key parts of Ranieri’s own Chelsea side.
As such, the contest lacked the bite and ferocity of a gritty derby but Fulham have rarely had much their way in this fixture. After all, Fulham’s last first division victory at Chelsea came in 1964, when Sir Bobby Robson, Alan Mullery and George Cohen adorned the team-sheet. Even by Ranieri’s history-making standards, to obliterate a 54-year record within his first fortnight in charge would have been some achievement.
Yet by the end of this match, Fulham had created more than enough openings to merit a draw and only the continuing excellence of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga spared Chelsea another poor result after a defeat against Tottenham and draw at home to Everton in their last two Premier League games.
After grasping an early lead through Pedro, some might have foreseen a derby demolition but Fulham did not fold and Chelsea’s performance was flat. Eden Hazard, now 10 games without a goal for club and country, was flat until late on and when he does not excel, there is little else by way of inspiration in the Chelsea side.
Sarri sought to gee up his team and at one point he was so far down the touchline that the fourth official went scurrying after him to coax the Italian back into his technical area.
Fulham goalkeeper Sergio Rico comes off his line and gets low to deny Giroud from scoring from close range
Chelsea midfielder Loftus-Cheek drives forward with the ball and uses his body to shield off Kamara during the second half
Jean Michael Seri shows good strength to hold off Chelsea winger Eden Hazard and retain possession for his side
David Luiz times his sliding challenge to perfection to cut out a pass forward and stop an attack from Fulham
As Chelsea took their pedal off the gas, Fulham’s game-plan began to emerge. They pressed with courage, forcing mistakes in the Chelsea midfield in the manner trail-blazed by Tottenham last week. Seri picked out Le Marchand to earn a corner and Calum Chambers struck well but comfortably into the hands of the goalkeeper.
Yet even in Fulham’s more progressive moments, mishaps are always around the corner. Under little duress, Cyrus Christie misplaced a pass inside his own half and Chelsea seized the initiative as Hazard’s low cross was flicked towards goal by Olivier Giroud. Sergio Rico reacted sharply but Ranieri was apoplectic once more, walloping his hands against his trousers in frustration.
At half-time, Ranieri made two changes, replacing Ryan Sessegnon and Stephan Johansen with Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara. During a sharp opening to the second period, Fulham really should have drawn level.
Christie galloped beyond Marcos Alonso on the Fulham right-flank and his dangerous low cross required a fine intervention from Antonio Rudiger to divert the ball wide of the post as Aleksandar Mitrovic waited for a tap-in.
Fulham boss Claudio Ranieri barks order at his players from the touchline on his return to Stamford Bridge
Maxime Le Marchand stretches his boot to try and click a cross on while Mateo Kovacic gets tight to the Fulham man
Aboubakar Kamara gets penalised for bundling Hazard over and breaking up a Chelsea counter attack by the halfway line
From the resultant corner, Chambers powered a header towards goal and Kepa responded well from pointblank range. Soon after, Cairney drove into the penalty area, tiptoed his way around his markers and laid the ball off to the edge of the box, where Chambers galloped onto the scene but his side-footed strike was a good height for another Kepa parry.
Chelsea all of a sudden appeared ragged. Azpilicueta was booked for a late challenge on Cairney and Chambers, who looked at ease in a midfield role, then wasted another bright opening in the penalty area with a poor final ball.
Chelsea, inevitably, began to find more space as Fulham pursued an equaliser. Hazard skipped into space and his rasping effort was superbly saved but substitute Alvaro Morata inexplicably volleyed over as the goal gaped on the rebound. Sarri turned around and put his hands on his head.
The Italian was soon content, though, as Hazard and Pedro bamboozled Fulham with intricate interplay and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, off the bench in the second half, arrived on cue to slot in the decisive second.
Chelsea defender Luiz plays a quick ball out of defence as Aleksandar Mitrovic comes to close him down
N’Golo Kante mistimes his sliding challenge and brings down his Fulham counterpart Tom Cariney but escapes punishment
Flames blast into the air as the supporters stand around the ground to applaud both teams on to the pitch before kick-off