Crespo Ends Chelsea's Losing Run (Sky Sports)
Fulham 0 Chelsea 1
Richard Jolly reports
Hernan Crespo brought Chelsea's worst week in the Roman Abramovich era to an end with a winner against Fulham to increase the already gargantuan gap between the top three and the rest.
The proliferation of London derbies is often cited as a hindrance to title-chasing teams from the capital but Crespo's header saw off Fulham, who started the day in the fourth Champions League place.
Memories of Fulham's brief taste of affluence are fading fast but the poorer neighbours frustrated Chelsea for an hour, due in part to their most expensive player on show, Edwin van der Sar. Just when the Dutchman was threatening an encore of his Highbury heroics, the unmarked Crespo headed home Wayne Bridge's cross.
Abramovich's trademark grin was replaced by a look of relief. Such are the exalted expectations at Stamford Bridge that two defeats almost constitutes a crisis. Louis Saha almost increased fears of an unwanted hat-trick as only the agility of Carlo Cudicini kept out his second-minute header.
And by Chelsea's standards, Claudio Ranieri also has an injury crisis to contend with. Damien Duff joined Juan Sebastian Veron, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Manu Petit on the sidelines, stretchered off after being tackled by Sean Davis while hitting an early shot van der Sar parried.
It affected Chelsea. With Joe Cole unhappy when stationed near the left touchline and Jesper Gronkjaer infuriating team-mates with his delivery from the right, the big spenders were not at their most fluent. Crespo and Adrian Mutu at least showed signs of a burgeoning alliance and the Romanian inadvertently presented his strike partner with a chance by blocking a Zat Knight clearance.
Van der Sar saved that, a Mutu shot and, best of all, when the unmarked John Terry had a shot from eight yards. Centre backs are in defence for a reason as Andy Melville showed in the Chelsea box when he directed a free header straight at Cudicini.
The Italian had more to do, but was equally accomplished when Steed Malbranque threaded a pass through the Chelsea defence for Saha. Fulham may contend, however, that it was a clash with Terry which prevented the Frenchman from adding to his 10 goals this season.
But Saha was too often isolated in attack as Chelsea improved. Typically, Frank Lampard was the catalyst, opening up the Fulham defence with elusive running and piercing passes. His finishing, though, was below par and van der Sar saved twice.
Crespo, too, had his profligate moments, especially when Lampard's chip found him behind the Fulham defence, but he was composed and alert when Bridge's cross arrived.
Fulham, as is their wont under Chris Coleman, responded. With an element of fortune, Cudicini kept out Luis Boa Morte and then, with greater assurance, Malbranque.
But Cole and Lampard could have extended the lead as van der Sar produced two more saves. Three points for Chelsea, then, but Ranieri's preferred Christmas present may be a fully fit Duff.
Fulham Van der Sar, Volz, Melville, Knight, Harley (Hayles 69), Boa Morte, Clark, Legwinski, Malbranque, Sean Davis (Djetou 37), Saha.
Subs Not Used: Crossley, Sava, Goma.
Booked: Saha, Clark.
Chelsea Cudicini, Johnson, Desailly, Terry, Bridge, Gronkjaer, Makelele, Lampard, Duff (Cole 8), Crespo (Gallas 89), Mutu, Cole (Geremi 84).
Subs Not Used: Sullivan, Melchiot.
Booked: Cole, Johnson, Gronkjaer.
Goals: Crespo 62.
Ref: M Riley (W Yorkshire)