Nervous Chelsea stuttered their way to a crucial but fortunate 2-1 victory over Fulham to go five points clear at the top and leave manager Carlo Ancelotti claiming they have turned a corner. Chelsea were a goal down after only four minutes against their local rivals and looked disjointed and short of confidence after a run of just one victory in six games. But an injury to key Fulham defender John Pantsil, who had been outstanding until then, allowed Didier Drogba to equalise before a cruel own goal from Chris Smalling, making his first start in the Premier League, earned them an unconvincing but welcome win.
The result leaves Chelsea five points clear of Manchester United and if that was the only relevant statistic then outsiders would surely surmise things were pretty rosy at Stamford Bridge right now. But, judging by this match, the real story is far more complicated because although the result could well prove a turning point in Chelsea's season, the manner of the performance was worrying. In fact the way Chelsea's form and confidence have disintegrated since beating Arsenal 3-0 on November 29 is unfathomable.
Their performance at the Emirates that day was bristling with power, experience and self-belief and was so convincing that many onlookers described the contest as men against boys. But results since then have included defeat at Manchester City and draws with Birmingham, Everton, Apoel and West Ham, leading Ancelotti to claim his side were suffering from a lack of confidence. So make no mistake, this result was crucial.
"It was not a good December but December is finished and now we have to look forward to January," Ancelotti said. "This match arrived in not a good moment for us and we went one down in the first half. But the most important thing is the direction of the team. They made a fantastic reaction in the second half. It was not easy to change this game but we showed great determination, great will. I am very happy because with this victory I think we finish the difficult moment."
Chelsea huddled together at the final whistle in a show of unity and rightly so because, at times, they looked certain to be beaten. Fulham, revitalised under manager Roy Hodgson, went ahead after only four minutes when Paul Konchesky was left unmarked on the left-hand side of the pitch and his cross was nodded down by a stooping Bobby Zamora and flashed home on the turn by Zoltan Gera. It is not the first time this month that Chelsea's defence has looked wobbly with even captain John Terry affected by the malaise.
But the presence of Drogba, playing his last game before heading to the African Cup of Nations, saved the Blues. He twice went close to equalising in the first half and his physical battle with Pantsil was a real feature of the game. Chelsea dominated possession in the second half but it was not until Pantsil limped off with a knee injury and Ancelotti brought on striker Daniel Sturridge for Jon Obi Mikel that the match swung.
After 73 minutes Drogba headed home at the far post from a deep Ivanovic cross and then, just two minutes later, the winner arrived. This time Kalou crossed low and Sturridge forced Mark Schwarzer into a fine save. But unfortunately for Fulham the ball cannoned straight against defender Smalling and, despite a last-gasp attempt to hook it away, ended up in the net. It was particularly cruel on Smalling who had enjoyed an excellent match until then but Chelsea won't care about that. It was a major moment in this season's title race. Man of the match: Didier Drogba (Chelsea) @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org