independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Benitez draws another blank with limp Blues

Chelsea 0 Fulham 0

The good news – Chelsea have two clean sheets in two games. That's about all for the good news.

The bad is that Chelsea failed to score for the second consecutive home game since the arrival of Rafael Benitez, Fernando Torres again looked a shadow of the player who once terrorised defences and the supporters once again booed the team off at the final whistle.

Benitez had tweaked the team, removing John Obi Mikel and inserting Oriol Romeu alongside Ramires in deep midfield. Benitez started without Juan Mata, keeping October's Premier League Player of the Month on the bench for a turgid hour. Ryan Bertrand initially formed the left-sided prong of the attacking trident desperately trying to breathe life into Fernando Torres.

It was the strangest of first halves, largely devoid of usual Derby decibels and drama. Benitez had been studiously ignored by the home fans as he assumed his place in the dug-out. There was none of the anger spitting forth from the terraces that marked and scarred his first appearance last Sunday. Clearly, the Chelsea supporters had decided on a silent protest, really springing to life only when the minutes reached 16, reflecting the shirt number Roberto di Matteo wore here.

"There's only one Di Matteo", came the chant from the Shed and the Matthew Harding Upper and Lower, spreading all around, registering the disagreement with the club's decision to sack Di Matteo. The outburst was brief and Chelsea fans were mainly quiet until the second half, especially when Mata came on. Until then, polite applause rippled around at the sight of promising moves but it was otherwise flat, subdued.

Far more noise emanated from the visiting fans, first mocking the Bridge announcer's request for them to sit down by all standing up.

They then serenaded the hosts' interim first-team manager with "Rafa Benitez ... he works where he wants". The Fulham glee club were in good form, disagreeing with a (fair) decision by Anthony Taylor with a chant of "we want Mark Clattenburg".

There was little of substantial footballing note to occupy the fans before the interval. Chelsea enjoyed most of the first-half possession but Fulham were too well-organised, too hard working. Dimitar Berbatov, a professor amidst the playground fare, played Fulham's outlet. Martin Jol's wide players, Hugo Rodallega and Damien Duff dropped deep when Chelsea had possession.

Travails

Torres' travails continued. On the half-hour mark, the Spaniard really should have scored following a quickfire move, the ball flowing from Branislav Ivanovic to Oscar to Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea's right-back, an increasingly influential force, drilled the ball in to Torres, who worked a yard of space by controlling it with his right foot and shooting left-footed goalwards.

This was it; the stuff of T-shirt legend. A stunned stadium followed the ball's journey, a potentially historic voyage to rival anything achieved up by Odysseus, Heyerdahl or Palin (Michael, not Sarah).

Torres' shot travelled between the legs of Aaron Hughes. On it went, as Chelsea fans in the Shed stood in hope. Then Mark Schwarzer dropped calmly to his knees and gathered the ball. Chelsea supporters sighed as their Fulham counterparts chuckled.

The game continued to meander towards the interval. Eden Hazard fired a free-kick into a Fulham wall. Azpilicueta lifted in a promising cross that Hughes did well to clear as Torres lurked. Hazard then picked out Torres, who hoisted over a cross that Sascha Riether headed away.

More urgency was detected in the second half. Berbatov was harshly ruled offside when he had timed his run perfectly and was through one on one with Cech. Giorgos Karagounis then switched play from right to left, perfectly picking out John Arne Riise's run into the box.

Benitez's old Liverpool full-back controlled the ball but his shot was too weak to trouble Cech.

Chelsea rallied. Ramires had an effort saved and their fans were now louder. Still, Fulham menaced on the counter and Karagounis tested Cech. Romeu was then cautioned for clinging to Berbatov like a frisky octopus. Then Luiz went into the book for a foul on Karagounis.

Berbatov's free-kick thudded into the Chelsea wall. Suddenly it was all white on the night; Riise unleashed a special which Cech saved. Mata and the newly arrived Marko Marin strived to break down Fulham's marvellous defence but Hughes and Riise refused to countenance conceding a goal.

Boos from the Chelsea fans briefly filled the air at the final whistle but the main sound was "Fulham, Fulham". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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