Cech to rescue as Torres flops again
Chelsea dropped two points and Didier Drogba last night -- and the fall-out from both will be felt for some time.
Although Drogba eventually replaced an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres, the Ivorian still could not rescue the champions at a cackling Craven Cottage.
When Drogba fluffed a late chance, Fulham fans chanted "are you Torres in disguise?"
And it could have been worse for Chelsea, whose best player, David Luiz, conceded a late penalty with a challenge on Clint Dempsey, but the American's kick was saved by Petr Cech.
Ironically, it was on Valentine's night that Carlo Ancelotti accepted that two's company and three's a crowd.
Having ambitiously tried but failed to accommodate his entire trio of centre-forwards in one system against Liverpool, he took the sensible option of making a clear choice between Torres and Drogba.
And, given that Roman Abramovich's £50m outlay on Torres is rather more recent and significant than the £24m he spent on Drogba in 2004, Ancelotti's preference was rather predicable.
At 26, Torres is undoubtedly the future for Chelsea, but there is a growing debate over who should represent the present.
Drogba, after all, has given six years of exceptional service to the club, scoring 141 goals in his 239 starts. Even more significantly, he has outscored Torres in the Premier League by 39 goals to 27 over the two most recent seasons.
It took the TV cameras only four minutes to zero in on Drogba in the dug-out, picking out his brooding features moments after Torres had wasted the ball in what was a wretched first half for the Spaniard.
Ancelotti had tweaked his tactics, removing Drogba, in an attempt to build the best stage for Torres to perform on. Chelsea were in 4-3-2-1 formation with Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda tucked in behind Torres. While it gave Chelsea numbers in the centre, they painfully lacked width, taking flight only when Branislav Ivanovic or Ashley Cole ventured upfield.
A player who once used to give Chelsea width, Fulham's Irish star Damien Duff, suddenly glided down the right, drilling in a low cross to the near post where Andrew Johnson was lurking. Luiz, making an impressive first start for Chelsea, nipped in to divert the danger for a corner.
Luiz was certainly shining more than Torres. Although left-sided, the Brazilian played to the right of John Terry and both centre-halves occasionally stepped into midfield. Luiz was terrific, losing possession only once in an impressive first half.
Yet Fulham sensed the uncertainty in Chelsea's ranks. Anelka had to drop back to nick the ball off the lively Mousa Dembele. Then Dembele attacked again, winning a corner off Ramires.
Fulham put together a superb passing move after 24 minutes, the ball flowing between Danny Murphy and Steve Sidwell before Duff let fly.
Petr Cech, briefly startled, punched the ball away. Back came Duff again, twisting Cole this way and that before the England full-back conceded a corner.
This was a slow-burning derby, lacking in fire and brimstone but containing some promising first-half moments. Chelsea finally found some width on the half-hour, mainly because Anelka had pulled wide.
The Frenchman worked the ball to Ramires, who sent Ivanovic charging down the right like a runaway bullock. The full-back drilled in a low cross met on the half-volley by Frank Lampard, whose shot whistled into the Hammersmith End.
Duff continued to delight the Fulham faithful, running at Cole, checking back and then teasing a fine crossfield pass to Carlos Salcido, whose wayward shot wasted the moment. Yet Salcido did deliver one of the passes of the half, a dinked ball down the flank for the energetic Sidwell. The former Chelsea midfielder then picked up a booking for catching Michael Essien.
Chelsea simply could not get going, although a couple of ill-judged Murphy back-passes momentarily gave them hope until Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird cleared up. Ivanovic also whipped in a cross that required a tip-over from Mark Schwarzer.
The final move of the first half encapsulated the contrasting fortunes of Chelsea's new recruits. Once again, Luiz's anticipation was first-rate, the £24m man nipping in, nicking the ball and then lifting it 50 yards down field, the ball dropping perfectly over the head of Hughes.
Torres was clear, the £50m man presented with the scenario he relishes most, running through one on one with a 'keeper. The danger ebbed immediately, as the ball bounced off Torres' left foot and ran through obligingly to Schwarzer. The Hammersmith End cackled itself all the way into the half-time break.
Chelsea could not stay narrow for ever. Moments into the second period, they finally discovered width, Ramires eluding Salcido with the deftest of turns. The Brazilian then lifted over a cross that Torres headed over.
As the Chelsea fans in the Putney End chanted the name of Drogba, who was warming up, Torres was again faltering, over-hitting a pass to Lampard.
More reminders of Luiz's defensive expertise were soon seen, the newcomer dispossessing Johnson with a magnificent challenge. He can get caught out dribbling forward, as happened again on the hour, but Luiz looks a astute buy.
Chelsea remained largely trapped in a central corridor, so Ancelotti withdrew Anelka and sent on Salomon Kalou after 65 minutes. Kalou immediately started trying to stretch the hosts down the right. But it was Chelsea's left-side attacker, Malouda, who almost forced the breakthrough, letting fly right-footed, the ball fizzing just wide.
Malouda, chasing Cole's clever pass, was then barged over by Brede Hangeland but Mike Dean deemed it accidental. Ancelotti twisted again, sending on Drogba for Torres, whose every step to the dug-out drew much merriment from the home fans. (© Daily Telegraph, London)