In the minds of the optimists occupying the boardroom at Stamford Bridge, there will come a point when Chelsea will be able to look back on the night when they lost to Fulham for the first time in 17 years and laugh about the time their new signing from Atlético Madrid took it too far with his attempts to prove he was capable of handling the rough and tumble of English football.
Yet the problem with that theory, the one that involves west London’s third best club being rewarded for sticking by Graham Potter, is that it jars with the current reality. For all the talk of trusting the process, Chelsea lie 10th in the table and six points behind Fulham. There was defiance from Potter’s team, epitomised by Kalidou Koulibaly’s equaliser, but it all fell apart after João Felix marred a promising debut with a ludicrous red card. Carlos Vinícius would soon deepen the woe for Chelsea.
The weirdness of Fulham coming into this derby as favorites soon faded. There was a bright enough start from Chelsea, signs of life after their surrender to Manchester City in the FA Cup, but accompanying it was a constant sense of a team living on the edge.
This was Chelsea trying to make things happen, at least making a show of trying to put Potter’s ideas into practice, and there were a few decent flashes. The best of them came from Félix, who made his debut despite only having one training session since his move from Atlético, and if there was any encouragement for Potter it was that his new Portuguese forward had at least shown signs that he was already on the same wavelength as his new teammates.
The eyes were drawn to Félix during the opening period, his movement panicking Fulham and forcing Antonee Robinson and Andreas Pereira to make fouls that led to bookings. He did not have a fixed point in the attack and his first involvement by him, a dangerous dart beyond Tim Ream, almost led to Chelsea going ahead after two minutes, only for Bernd Leno to make a fine stop from Lewis Hall.
Chelsea looked good at that stage. Félix sent two shots off target and there was even some assertiveness from Kai Havertz after his dismal showing against City.
The problem for Potter, though, was Chelsea’s lack of conviction at both ends of the pitch. The longer it stayed goalless, the more Fulham came into the game. There was a chance for Bobby Decordova-Reid, who struck the bar after an error from Chalobah, and danger every time Koulibaly tried to bring the ball out from the back.
It was not a surprise when Fulham went ahead. Potter had placed his faith in youth by overlooking Marc Cucurella for Hall, but the left wing-back’s inexperience showed in the 25th minute. Hall was too casual with possession deep on the left, and his mistake was compounded by Chalobah failing to head Reid’s cross away. The ball went as far as Willian, who danced beyond César Azpilicueta before fizzing in a drive that flicked off Chalobah and left Kepa Arrizabalaga with no chance.
There followed the classic non-celebration from Willian, who did not want to make life even more miserable for his old team. Chelsea were perfectly capable of doing that to themselves. They were messy as the interval approached and there was almost another goal for Fulham when Vinícius, deputising for the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, went close to smuggling a header past Arrizabalaga.
Equally Chelsea had moments of their own. Hall and Félix both extended Leno before half-time and the visitors would be level two minutes after the restart. The goal came after a run from Hall, who won a free-kick after another tricky burst, and was made by Mount. The midfielder’s delivery almost caught out Leno at his near post and although the Fulham goalkeeper scrambled to keep Mount’s shot from creeping in he could not stop Koulibaly from forcing the rebound over the line.
It was a fine response from Chelsea, though their lengthening injury list grew when they lost the diligent Denis Zakaria in midfield. The inconsistency lingered. Moments later the red mist descended on Félix when he launched into a wild challenge on Kenny Tete. Fulham howled for a red; the referee, David Coote, decided the foul was high enough to dismiss Félix.
The 10 men cracked. With 17 minutes left, Pereira crossed from the right. Thiago Silva was dozing and Arrizabalaga’s positioning was suspect, allowing Vinícius to head into the empty net. The hardest job in football had become even more difficult.