Rafael Benitez under pressure to deliver as Chelsea's new era remains goalless
Chelsea 0 Fulham 0: At times the game last night was so forgettable that even the militants at Stamford Bridge seemed to have slipped into a daze in which they had forgotten that Roberto Di Matteo had been sacked and Rafael Benitez installed as his successor.
Then, in the final few frustrating minutes of the game, the malcontents found their voice again and sang: "We want our Chelsea back". But what Chelsea? The one that had not won the league championship since 1955 before Roman Abramovich turned up? The one which was creaking under debt? Or the one owned by a Russian oligarch who invested £1bn but is not keen on explaining his decisions?
What they meant was that they do not want the Chelsea they have at the moment, which, two games into the Benitez interregnum, is showing few signs of life. Granted, the team have not conceded a goal in Benitez's two games in charge but they have now won just two games in the last 10 and have not won in the league since the victory over Tottenham Hotspur on 20 October.
As Abramovich watched, chin on palm, non-plussed expression, from his lofty perch in the executive suites, Chelsea's collection of intricate playmakers, disgruntled centre-forwards and toiling midfielders did not look like the billionaire's dream team. They seemed average, shut down by, among others, the industrious Steven Sidwell, who once passed through Stamford Bridge having scarcely made a ripple.
The story always returns to Fernando Torres, however, the man who is wheeled out at Stamford Bridge every home game like some religious relic whom the locals hope will one day spring a miracle to repay their faith. Same old, same old last night from the £50m man. He tried his best; he just did not look any more convincing than he did in the dog days of the Di Matteo reign.
If there was a consolation for Benitez, it was that he was not subject to the same barracking from the Chelsea fans that he endured on Sunday which, from a point of basic decency, was a relief. He slipped into the dugout virtually unnoticed at the start of the game and it was the Fulham supporters who claimed the best chant of the evening with the song: "Rafa Benitez, he works where he wants".
Chelsea were eventually booed off at the end of the match having fallen seven points behind the leaders Manchester United. Their next two league games are away from home at West Ham and then Sunderland and even Benitez conceded that playing away from Stamford Bridge might alleviate some of the pressure and allow his team to play with greater freedom on the counter-attack.
As for Fulham, they have not won in six league games but this was a point that they would not have taken for granted. In Dimitar Berbatov, they had the one man who occasionally raised the tone above the mundane. He slowed it down, he sped it up, he passed and he flicked and if only he had the inclination to run around that bit more he could have bossed the match all evening.
Alas, for Berbatov it is enough to do something clever once every 10 minutes and then spend the rest of the time reflecting on his achievement. Or perhaps that is part of his charm. Either way, the moment when Oriol Romeu tried to bring him down with a rugby tackle around the Bulgarian's waist was the acknowledgement that Chelsea struggled with the Fulham captain all night.
Behind Berbatov, Fulham were extremely solid in a midfield comprising of Sidwell, Giorgos Karagounis, Mahamadou Diarra and Damien Duff. As for Benitez, he demonstrated that he is still wedded to that old strategy of rest and recuperation by leaving Juan Mata out the starting XI. John Obi Mikel was also left on the bench.
Chances? There were too few. On 30 minutes, Torres stopped a cross from Oscar from the right, killing its momentum which forced him to spin round and hit it with his left foot. The shot was straight at Mark Schwarzer. With 10 minutes left, Torres beat Schwarzer with a volley which Aaron Hughes kicked away, although it was debatable whether it was on target.
Before then, Benitez had decided he had no option but to raise the stakes and sent on Mata after the hour. For much of what followed it was more of the same: a lot of running and hard work to provide the crosses for a non-existent goal-scoring centre-forward to convert. Sadly, in his present form, Torres is not that man.
The best chances fell to John Arne Riise, the first of which was 10 minutes after the break when he ran on to Karagounis's long ball from the right side and then miscued his shot at the near post with Berbatov imploring him to cross it.
When the former Manchester United man had the ball he was a pleasure to watch. He pinned Romeu behind him with that usefully obstructive backside when the Chelsea midfielder tried to nip in front and steal the ball away in the first half. On 73 minutes, Berbatov slipped a throughball to Sascha Riether that resulted in a foul on the German that saw David Luiz booked. From the resulting free-kick Berbatov was casually wasteful.
The moment that Fulham really thought they had broken through came on 75 minutes when Berbatov worked the ball out from the right side and found Karagounis who teed up Riise. It took the old reliable Petr Cech to reach down to his right and keep the ball out. It was a scare for Chelsea. There was a penalty appeal for a tackle by Ramires on substitute Kerim Frei but it looked as if referee Anthony Taylor called it right by waving play on.
Benitez eventually sent on Marko Marin at the end of the game, only the second appearance of his Chelsea career for the Germany international. To no-one's great surprise, he is not yet the game-changer that was needed – he may never be – but he was in good company there. Chelsea lack a match-winner. Benitez needs one fast.
Man of the Match Sidwell.
Match rating 3/10.
Referee A Taylor (Cheshire).