STRUGGLE: Fulham's Diarra, left, vies for possession with Bertrand
ONE HUNDREND and eighty minutes into Rafael Benitez’s reign at Stamford Bridge and his team are still yet to find the net. The new manager has been greeted with much hostility from Chelsea fans, and owner Roman Abramovich may soon be wondering why he appointed the Spaniard, who has managed only two points from a possible six.
It was the first back-to-back nil-nil under Abramovich's rule since Jose Mourinho managed consecutive goalless games in September 2004.
The trigger-happy Russian watched from high above in his director’s box as Chelsea came up against a stubborn Fulham side. The Cottager’s manager, Martin Jol, set up his side well sending out a compact team that kept Chelsea mainly at an arm’s length during the 90 minutes.
During the early exchanges Chelsea had the lion’s share of possession, but failed to find any penetrative passes – Torres, whose despondent body language did not draw much encouragement, failed to find his team-mates with knock-downs and the away fans did not let him forget with their chants of “what a waste of money." The striker cost Abramovich £50m and has now not found the net in over 10 hours of football.
Benitez made a surprise selection by picking Ryan Bertrand ahead of Juan Mata. Bertrand played in an advanced left midfield role, but the 23-year-old did not offer much offensively and was withdrawn on the hour mark.
The match was epitomised by a resilient Fulham defence putting bodies on the line to block everything Chelsea threw at them. Yet keeper Mark Schwarzer was not under siege during the first half, though Torres did manage to muster a low shot on goal, after swivelling in the box, but his effort was easily collected down low.
At the other end, Fulham’s captain Dimitar Berbatov was looking impressive, showing for the ball, linking well with others and proving a thorn in Chelsea’s side. The Bulgarian demonstrated what Torres should have been doing to fulfil the lone striker’s role.
10 minutes after the break, Berbatov timed a run to perfection and was through on goal only for the linesman to incorrectly raise his flag. Fulham sensed blood, and immediately after they stole the ball and lofted a magnificent ball over Chelsea’s defence finding left-back John Arne Riise, who contrived to miss-hit his shot as David Luiz breathed down his neck.
Chelsea re-grouped and Mata’s introduction almost made an instant impact when his 65th minute corner found Branislav Ivanovic, whose header whisked past the post. The home side began pinging the ball in and around Fulham’s area, but the attack ended with another blocked shot from a long-range Ashley Cole attempt.
Fulham also tried their luck from distance, with both Hugo Rodallega and Riise testing Petr Cech’s hand to eye coordination. The Czech international keeper’s handling was immaculate. Berbatov yet again proved a nuisance, orchestrating Chelsea defenders into his slipstream, before flicking the ball to Riise on the edge of the area. The Norwegian unleashed a fierce drive toward the bottom right of the goal, but Cech again proved himself equal and parried the ball around the post.
Next it was Torres' turn to go agonisingly close. In the 79th minute he chested down a long cross, finding himself with time and space to wind up for a half-volley which beat Schwazer. However, Aaron Hughes expertly read the danger and scrambled back to prevent the ball crossing the line.
Jol brought on Kerim Frei and the winger showed his worth through confident, direct dribbles that provoked panic within Chelsea’s rearguard. There were appeals for a Fulham penalty when Ramires poked the ball away from Turkish 19-year-old, but the Brazilian was correctly judged to have won the ball first before making contact.
The minutes ticked away and many home fans were leaving the ground early to the glee of their neighbours. Nonetheless, Ramires nearly saved the day with a lung-busting run that ended in a goal bound shot. Yet again it was blocked by a heroic dive from Philippe Senderos.
The last kick of the match left Schwarzer’s goal frame shuddering as Cesar Azpilicueta struck a fine half-volley from outside the box. The final whistle blew and was greeted by boos from the Chelsea faithful.
After the match Jol had mixed feelings about the result. “We knew it would be difficult,” he said, “but I’m disappointed we didn’t get the three points because we needed them.
“I knew we are a difficult team for them to beat. We could have nicked it, which would have been bad for them and great for us.”
Meanwhile Benitez fended off criticism from his number nine. “It was not easy for Torres, and neither was it for Hazard and Oscar,” said the interim boss.
“Everybody is disappointed here, but we have to give credit to Fulham. They had a lot of bodies behind the ball and it was hard to score.
“You cannot be satisfied when you don’t win these games. But today I saw some positive things, but I didn’t like the chances we gave away on the counter attack.
“We have to keep going,” added the newly appointed Blues manager. “The Premier League is long, long competition. We have to win games and then the confidence will come.”
Man of the match: Dimitar Berbatov