Fulham 0 Chelsea 2
The recovery is at an early stage, but the sight of a rampant Mykhailo Mudryk scoring his first goal in 21 Premier League appearances, Robert Sánchez keeping a clean sheet and Armando Broja finding the net on his first start since a serious knee injury will only strengthen Chelsea’s belief in Mauricio Pochettino.
It has been a while since Chelsea looked this assured. They brushed Fulham aside during the first half as they claimed their first league win since August. The wait was worth it. Mudryk, who has endured so much mockery since his €100 million move from Shakhtar Donetsk, is proof that hard work pays off.
All along the insistence from Chelsea has been about the data pointing towards a team on the verge of exploding into life. If the results have not matched performances, though, perhaps that is only natural from a club who have gambled on so much youth.
At times there has been a naivety to Chelsea, bad decisions at pivotal moments hitting them hard, and their struggles cannot only be explained by their issues in front of goal. Players winning their individual battles matters too and, as much as Pochettino must have enjoyed the sight of his attack running rings around a dizzy Fulham defence, what may have pleased him even more is the aggression on display from the start of this London derby.
Straight away came the sight of Moisés Caicedo setting the tone in defensive midfield, leaving two early reducers on an indignant Andreas Pereira, and Broja’s physicality causing problems up front.
It was as if Chelsea were powered by a determination to silence the taunts about last season’s plummet to third best in west London. They were displaying many of the best traits of a Pochettino team, pressing high and breaking at speed, and the variety of their passing made Fulham look lumpen by comparison.
The worry for Pochettino, of course, was that Chelsea would rue not going ahead during a dominant opening spell. A sense of foreboding fell over the visitors when a loose touch from João Palhinha sent Broja through and the striker blazed his shot into the Hammersmith End after rounding Bernd Leno.
Chelsea’s travelling fans had seen this play before. The football was thrilling, but would it be accompanied by a killer touch? It was hard to feel confident when Enzo Fernández spurned a chance moments later, then when Mudryk wasted a couple of opportunities on the left.
Yet Chelsea had to remain one of Pochettino’s more notable skills is his man-management and he has devoted plenty of time to working on Mudryk’s confidence. The Ukrainian has made gradual progress in recent weeks; he simply had to keep his head up and wait for the reward to arrive.
The same applied to Chelsea after those early misses. They remained calm and attacked again after 18 minutes. Picking the ball up from deep, Caicedo lifted his head and switched the play to the left. Levi Colwill had room to attack and the left back’s ball into the middle caught out Issa Diop.
It sailed over the Fulham defender’s head and there was Mudryk, running unchallenged through the middle, taking the ball on his chest and drilling a low shot beyond Leno to give Chelsea a deserved lead.
Fulham could not escape the traps being set by Pochettino. From the restart, the ball went back to Tim Ream and the centre back gave it straight to Cole Palmer. Chelsea were making mistakes happen. Palmer, justifying his inclusion ahead of Raheem Sterling with an array of clever touches on the right, punished Fulham by finding Broja and a comedy of errors ended when Ream’s challenge hit the 22-year-old and rolled past Leno.
True, it was unintentional, but Broja made his own luck after replacing the suspended Nicolas Jackson. His ability to run the channels made life tough for Fulham and created space for others in blue. Fernández was in his element in an advanced position, almost scoring from 20 yards. Caicedo was running midfield. Conor Gallagher, wearing the captain’s armband, produced some beautiful turns in the middle and combined well with Palmer, who looks a smart signing from Manchester City.
At the back Marc Cucurella once again looked hungry filling in for Reece James and Malo Gusto at right back. Fulham were lightweight, only threatening during the first half when Raúl Jiménez headed wide. Axel Disasi and Thiago Silva were comfortable, though Pochettino clearly wanted more. He was deep in conversation with Palmer as the teams went off at half-time.
Pochettino knew Fulham would improve. Chelsea had lost Mudryk to a slight knock, Ian Maatsen coming on and later hitting a post, and Fulham emerged with more intensity. The mood might have changed had Carlos Vinícius and Sasa Lukic taken chances to halve the deficit. Chelsea, who had to replace a tiring Broja, had to dig in. – Guardian