Deep in stoppage-time, Chelsea were frantically defending a single-goal lead with five at the back and no discernible presence up front against a team without a win at Stamford Bridge since 1979.
These are desperate days for manager Mauricio Pochettino and his young side.
Holding on for a 1-0 victory over Fulham may feel like a fall from grace compared to the club’s halcyon days, but Pochettino has to believe that tiny acorns will grow into mighty oaks.
Cole Palmer continues to resemble Chelsea’s biggest individual hope. The 21-year-old midfielder’s penalty in added time at the end of the first half further showcased his impressive composure under pressure. It capped an impressive personal display as he was one of the only players who threatened to drag the game out of the meandering mediocrity in which it mostly resided, while he showed strong resolve to recover from a plethora of missed chances in Tuesday’s EFL Cup semifinal first-leg defeat to Middlesbrough.
Chelsea’s £40 million summer signing from Manchester City now has 18 goal contributions (11 goals, 7 assists) in all competitions this season, the third-highest tally for a player aged 21 or younger across Europe’s top-five leagues — only Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham (now 22) and Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz (20) have had a greater influence.
The victory over Fulham means Chelsea have now won three Premier League matches on the bounce for the first time since October 2022. Not that Stamford Bridge is anything like the fortress of old yet. There was a distinct chill in the air — beyond the cold January weather in London — with Chelsea supporters on edge throughout, bemoaning the lack of cutting edge in attack, misplaced passes and the precarious nature of their lead.
In addition to Palmer’s class, Conor Gallagher’s tireless endeavour is one such characteristic.
He almost capped another energetic display with a brilliant goal, hitting Bernd Leno’s right-hand post with a sublime shot struck with the outside of his right foot from the edge of the box.
That would have been harsh on Fulham, who were in this game throughout but lacked the quality to hurt their opponents. They have now won just one of their past 24 league meetings with Chelsea.
Their task could have been made much easier had Chelsea right-back Malo Gusto been sent off for a late tackle on Willian after 39 minutes. Referee Anthony Taylor brandished a yellow card and VAR official Michael Salisbury decided Gusto’s challenge was not dangerous or reckless, therefore not worthy of further punishment.
“We have to talk about the red card for Gusto, it was clear,” said Fulham boss Marco Silva. “It is hard to see how things aren’t consistent at the level that we’re at. This is the Premier League. In 10 of those moments, nine times it is a red card. It is a clear red card for me. VAR checked and this time they didn’t give [it].
“I haven’t spoken to the officials. I don’t want to say what the fourth official said. He has the same opinion as me, but it is not for him to say, it is for the VAR to decide. It is a normal decision from the referee, but the help should come from the VAR.”
Pochettino said in response: “If I was put in his place, I would tell you it is a red card. The action, they thought it is a yellow card. Good for us.”
An equally pivotal moment came just a few minutes later. Palmer’s clever reverse pass found Raheem Sterling in the box. Sterling cut back inside and Issa Diop stuck out a leg in hope rather than expectation, making contact with the England winger to bring him down. It was Chelsea’s eighth penalty of the season — Sterling has won three — and both are Premier League highs.
Despite Fulham showing signs of battle-weariness from their own midweek EFL Cup semifinal against Liverpool, Chelsea could not kill off their opponents. Blues goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic saved well from Harry Wilson in the first half, and again from Raúl Jiménez in the second. Then left-back Ben Chilwell came on to make his first Chelsea appearance since Sept. 27 following a hamstring injury — another small step in the right direction alongside a fourth-consecutive home win in all competitions.