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Chelsea had been wheezing in pursuit of the top four for some time, recent victories squeezed rather unconvincingly from tight contests, yet now they have stalled. For a while last night Roberto Di Matteo’s side had flirted with fourth place, ensconced in the bottleneck of clubs beneath Arsenal in the table.
By the end, with their lead cancelled out at the last, they had been cast adrift. They had not been as low as sixth at this stage of a season during Roman Abramovich’s ownership but that is their reality now.
The interim first-team coach clung to the positives afterwards. His side, after all, were technically a point closer to Tottenham Hotspur than they had been at the start of the day.
“We were always playing catch-up, so the situation was difficult from the beginning,” said Di Matteo. But the spin could not mask this from feeling like a missed opportunity and, even among a squad as experienced as this, psychological damage was inflicted by a failure to close out the gap altogether. Fulham merited a draw but Chelsea departed feeling wasteful.
FA Cup and Champions League semi-final commitments will inevitably take their toll but the five-game Premier League run-in includes trips to Arsenal and Liverpool, the latter a side who will inevitably rally for the Londoners’ visit. It could be considered a blessing that sixth place might not even end up yielding a Europa League place, if Everton go on to claim the FA Cup, but the damage to Chelsea’s reputation in missing out on Europe altogether would be considerable, both financially and in terms of future recruitment. It was not the time for energy to be sapped from their approach. Yet this was, for long periods, another flat performance from a squad labouring to compete on three fronts.
Fulham might have edged ahead in the first half but the visitors plucked a penalty right at the end of the period and a lead upon which to cling, suggesting their good fortune in the weekend victory over Wigan had been prolonged.
Not long ago Di Matteo’s side would have seized upon such a scenario to stamp their authority on the contest, perhaps plundering a second before suffocating the opposition. But the current crop struggle to retain leads in the latter stages.
Dempsey, peeling away from John Terry at John Arne Riise’s late corner â€“ with Dickson Etuhu cleverly blocking off the visitors’ captain â€“ nodded powerfully down with the ball flicking up from Gary Cahill’s backside to find the corner of the net. The American will claim a 22nd reward of a prolific season but Chelsea had endured the 20th goal conceded this season in the last 10 minutes of contests, an indication that mental fatigue has long since set in. Di Matteo described it as “a bit of a pattern”. Killer instinct has been blunted.
Fulham deserved to be level. Theirs had been the slicker approach through the first half, Moussa DembĂ©lĂ© purring whenever in possession and Kerim Frei an irritation for Branislav Ivanovic down the flank. Dempsey might have converted after one cleverly crafted interchange with the Belgian, while Frei forced Petr Cech to turn away a skimmed attempt from distance.
Frustration was welling that they had not eased themselves ahead when Danny Murphy dived in with studs raised on Salomon Kalou and Stephen Kelly, almost unnoticed at the forward’s back, made faint contact with the Ivorian’s left foot.
Mark Clattenburg was well positioned and awarded the penalty instantly, though not for Murphy’s studs-up challenge but instead for Kelly’s vague misdemeanour. All were confused and Fulham deeply aggrieved.
Frank Lampard thrashed in the penalty to register his 150th Premier League goal and the visitors’ grind appeared ready to bring more reward. In truth the visitors might have claimed two more spot-kicks â€“ Lampard appeared to be pushed by Brede Hangeland while Kelly’s swollen wrist was evidence that Ryan Bertrand’s shot had been handled â€“ but mustered little else other than from distance.
They will continue to assess the fitness of Ashley Cole, absent here with ankle trouble, and the restored Terry, who is still hampered by two broken ribs, in the build-up to Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, though they return to training deflated.
Fulham’s late revival had seen Aaron Hughes thwarted at the near post by Cech but Dempsey would not be denied. With players of the American’s calibre in this form, the loss of Bryan Ruiz with a broken foot until next season will not be felt too keenly.
And as for Chelsea’s pursuit of the top four? “Spurs will finish in the top four because they’ve got all the qualityâ€¦,” offered Martin Jol, the former Tottenham manager, with a wink. Few up the Fulham Road will be chuckling.