Chelsea needed a late strike from Mason Mount to earn an important return to winning ways, beating 10-man Fulham 1-0 on Saturday evening.
Mason Mount hit the crossbar and the home team threatened intermittently, but the big moment of the half came in the closing stages when Antonee Robinson was shown a straight red card for an out-of-control challenge on Cesar Azpilicueta.
Naturally, it led to Chelsea dominating play after the break, where they particularly trouble Fulham from corners, but clear chances on goal were in short supply and Olivier Giroud side-footed the best ones wide.
Ola Aina tried a long-range free-kick and a defensive mix-up almost let Fulham in, but Mason Mount found the breakthrough in the final 15 minutes as he hammered in a loose ball from inside the penalty box.
Here are five things we learned from the game at Craven Cottage.
Frank’s big calls
Kurt Zouma’s absence was a surprise, explained by the manager as wanting to explore a different range of abilities, while the likes of Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi have had different form levels of late, but could both point to recent goals as reasons for selection.
Giroud was industrious but lacked end product, Pulisic sparked at moments but floated in and out of the game – only Rudiger can really feel he didn’t put a foot wrong, being untroubled at the back for long stretches.
Rewind to the opening days of the season and Fulham’s defence was, to put it kindly, a shambles.
The entire line is gone now, reinforcements from the closing stages of the transfer window earning their spot in a changed system at the back, as well as a new goalkeeper being in place.
As a result, and despite this late defeat, the performance level from a defensive standpoint is unrecognisable now compared to those early fixtures and defeats – that’s the starting point for their renewed hope of avoiding the drop.
One downside for them is that two wing-back options will be unavailable next time out, Robinson through the red card and Bobby De Cordova-Reid through an accumulation of yellows.
No Premier League side have scored more than Chelsea’s 18 goals after the 60th minute of games this season.
While an ideal situation would have the Blues ahead and in control by that point, it does show that they have both the attacking options to change matters in games, and also a mentality which sees them keep pushing in tight matches.
Mount came up with the finishing touch this time, only his second league goal of the campaign but again proving his importance to Lampard’s side with his all-round influence on the match.
Mind the gap
Fulham were again improved, again impressive in certain regards – but this was their worst day for a while, in points and league place terms.
While West Brom below them, and Brighton above them, both picked up victories in the battle against the drop, this turned into a first defeat in six for the Cottagers.
Scott Parker’s team had drawn their previous five, slowly clawing back ground towards safety, but this defeat leaves them four points from Burnley and five from Brighton, albeit with two games in hand on the Cottagers and one on the Baggies, who are 18th.
It’s Manchester United next, but then two crunch games which could well define who faces a half-season of desperation: away to Brighton on 27 January and away to West Brom three days later.
Yes, Chelsea are in the top-four fight… despite rising to only seventh. The recent three-game run without a league win saw the Blues drop out of the top sides, but it’s so tight in the top half that a win against Leicester in their next game could put them back in touch with the Foxes, who have been in the top four most of the season.
Consistency will be everything in achieving a top-four finish come the end of the season, so the attacking options could well prove vital over the longer run, even if some haven’t been anywhere near top form of late.
Lampard’s season will be defined by the matches where they can simply find a way to win; this time they did so and the relief shown at the end of the match prove just how important it was to do so.