Fulham have at least temporarily broken into the top six in the Premier League and have obviously put their name forward for the race for the spots guaranteeing a campaign in Europe next term. They did it in style, by beating Chelsea 2-1 at Craven Cottage on Thursday, with former Blues winger Willian breaking the deadlock in the 25th minute, Kalidou Koulibaly equalizing for the visitors just after the break, and Carlos Vinicus heading the winner in with 17 minutes left on the clock.
Chelsea in crisis
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With just 25 points from 18 matches so far, Chelsea’s place in next season’s Champions League is now in the realm of fantasy, even if it hasn’t been completely ruled out yet. They’ve won just two of their last 11 matches in all competitions, and it painfully clear that their cart is in a ditch.
Ever since Todd Boehly took control of the club following the forced exit of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have been trying to stay competitive through numerous expensive signings, strengthening their options in every department. They used an early patch of poor form as an excuse to let Thomas Tuchel leave and brought in Graham Potter to replace him, but now there’s plenty of speculation about the possibility of the former Brighton and Hove Albion manager losing his job as well.
There’s plenty of quality in the Chelsea ranks, and they’ve shown, particularly in the first half of their 0-1 Premier League defeat to Manchester City, that they can actually play well against top opposition when they set their minds to it. That, however, hasn’t been the case nearly enough this season and therein lie the problems.
Injuries haven’t helped, that’s for sure. Chelsea now have a complete XI out of action. But the players who are available are (or should be) good enough to grind results.
Potter has been trying to rotate wherever it was reasonable to try that approach, giving a couple of young prospects some important game-time. Lewis Hall, 19, is one of them, and he started this match ahead of Marc Cucurella. Potter0 also switched to a back three system, allowing for Trevoh Chalobah (20) to join seasoned centre-backs Thiago Silva and Koulibaly in that line, but the youngster struggled greatly on that side, with the Fulham duo of Willian and Antonee Robinson proving a handful and captain Cesar Azpilicueta not doing enough to help.
It was a strange situation which led to Willian’s opener, as Azpilicueta stood in front of his former teammate and instead of showing him wide and forcing him onto his weaker left foot, allowed the Brazilian to cut inside and shoot. Not only is Azpilicueta experienced enough to read such moments better, but he also knows Willian pretty well and it’s hard to explain why didn’t react better, or at least smarter.
Kepa Arrizabalaga has only added to Potter’s problems with a couple of questionable moments recently, and this
Joao Felix – The dream becomes a nightmare
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Just 24 hours after joining the club on loan from Atletico Madrid, Joao Felix was named to start upfront beside Kai Havertz and his performance was very lively for 57 minutes. He was involved in everything good Chelsea did in the opposition half directly, and by halftime, the feeling was that his name appearing on the scoresheet in this match was a matter of time.
But in that 58th minute, he inexplicably slid into Fulham defender Kenny Tete with his studs showing, and while some would argue that there was no malice intended, there can be no doubt that referee David Coote made the right call when he raised the red card against the Portugal international. What had been looking like a fine debut for the club broke into a million pieces, particularly with a three-game ban that accompanies direct red cards in mind.
Felix left Atletico in unpleasant circumstances, having fallen out with head coach Diego Simeone. It became painfully obvious that a player like him, creative, technically very gifted and suited for an attacking brand of football, had no business joining a team like Atletico – a team where defensive duties bear the absolute priority over everything else and where a certain amount of so-called “dark arts” is employed.
It’s therefore no surprise that Felix became extremely unhappy with his situation and wanted to leave the Wanda Metropolitano as soon as possible. Manchester United were said to be interested in his services too, but Chelsea acted decisively and brought the 23-year-old to Stamford Bridge, albeit without an option to buy at the end of the season.
To get that done, Chelsea had to pay €11 million as a loan fee to Atletico at once, and they did so in the belief the forward would play 21 Premier League matches for them between now and the end of the season. Having played once, however, he will play a maximum of 17 more due to the ban for the red card in this match.
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Speaking to the press after the match, Fulham defender Tim Ream was asked about his team climbing into the top six and sitting above not only Chelsea, but Liverpool as well. The USA international obviously didn’t want to get dragged into some kind of speculative end-of-season discussion, and focused his talk on taking the campaign match by match, each as it comes, thinking only about the next opponent.
Maybe the players and manager Marco Silva won’t allow themselves to get too excited at this point, but the fans will certainly be dreaming about a glorious end to a season in which their team returned to the Premier League, played really well and booked a spot in a European competition.
But for now, Silva and his men will surely be looking at the upcoming fixtures, and there’s a lot to think about there. They first go to Newcastle, then they welcome Tottenham Hotspur, and after facing Sunderland in the fourth round of the FA Cup, it’s Chelsea again, this time at Stamford Bridge.
It’s always good to feel optimistic, but Fulham’s prospects for the season will surely become slightly clearer after that.