In some ways this fighting 0-0 draw was a minor classic: a very good side against a decent one, with both giving everything and neither able to prevail. Chelsea came to dominate in the end, Fulham had the match’s golden opportunity. That feels like a good game.
The first half was even, and while Petr Cech was the busier of the two goalkeepers, this was largely because all of our crosses landed in his outstretched arms. This was frustrating but embodied the task at hand. Somehow we weren’t getting the chance to get chances. Chelsea are a formiddably powerful side and their players had that extra second, that extra pace, that extra oomph. Not that we didn’t fight hard – for the first half we battled like madmen – but there was always a sense that for all our competitive energy, for all the game’s evenness, it didn’t feel like enough. Which in some ways shows how wrong you can be, but we’ll come back to this.
Chelsea were again accommodating the once-decent forward Fernando Torres. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that they would have had more success employing Crawley Town’s Sergio Torres; Fernando was that bad. His performance was akin to that of a small child being made to eat his brussells sprouts. Were I a Chelsea fan I’d be devastated at this waste of space, and keep all possible fingers crossed that somehow this is only a necessary warmup to the excellence that lies ahead. But how long is it since he played like a £5,000,000 player, let alone one worth ten times that? Chelsea have paid for a name, a reputation. He was dire. The Hammersmith End was not slow in telling him this.
The second half was one way traffic. Chelsea pinned Fulham back and our shape either went to pot or held up brilliantly, depending on what we were supposed to be doing. Certainly Chelsea could find no way through, but equally, we couldn’t keep the ball for more than 10 seconds as all available staff were camped around our own area. A defeat seemed almost certain, even with Chelsea’s band of misfiring strikers. A handful of crosses slipped along the face of our goal without interruption; surely we couldn’t keep this up?
But we did. Clint Dempsey had a decent chance on the break, but his lack of burning pace told as he was caught up and hurried, and his decent shot was parried by the immaculate Cech. Simon Davies headed over. The game was getting hideously stretched now, Hughes’ substitutions showing remarkable boldness given what had been happening, but sometimes boldness is what you need: the game was only going one way when we were packing our own half, and sometimes attack can be the best form of defence, after all.
Then it happened. Dempsey wriggled clear of the otherwise outstanding David Luiz, picked his moment and did his little “I’ve been fouled” tumble. The referee pointed to the spot, the exhausted Dempsey and the fresh as a daisy Gera conferred, and Dempsey placed the ball on the spot. It’s not 20-20 hindsight to question penalty taker selection: not so long ago Dempsey took the ball off Murphy to score from the spot, a move that raised eyebrows but which was successful because he scored. Dempsey is a confident lad and this is of course vital, but Gera can take spot kicks too and under the circumstances you’d think hard about going with the fresher player. Or not; had Gera taken and missed you could very easily say that Dempsey should have taken it. Whatever, the fact is Dempsey’s kick was poor and saved, and there went a glorious chance to pull off an extraordinary rope-a-dope victory.
Is this what Hughes played for? Keep it tight, keep them out, then bust out in the last 10 minutes to try to nick it? Maybe so, in which case, fair play to the man for almost securing an amazing win. It didn’t quite happen, which is a huge shame. Missed late penalties against Stoke or Wolves or Wigan disappear into time’s attic without much of a second thought; the same kicks against Chelsea are played over and over and over in our minds. As I cycled home I pictured Clint slotting it low to Cech’s left, I pictured him blasting it high into the roof of the net, or sweeping it beyond his right hand with emphatic certainty. But no, in the real world we’re left with that tired nothing of a hit and hope (I know, easy for me to sit here and be critical, right?) penalty that meant we didn’t pull off the win we’d never forget.
Drogba was a little inside the area, no? It looked worse than this at the ground. Ref must have seen it too. By the letter of the law…