Never has Stamford Bridge been so subdued. A proper west London derby should inspire determination and get pulse rates soaring, but rarely did it even lift off, dying out in a painful game of non-existent football, as Chelsea and Fulham served out as bleak a draw as the weather.
In truth, it was a match with “stalemate” written all over it. The last four meetings between these two sides had dished up just four goals, and it hardly looked like there would be much else here.
It was the first time Chelsea have failed to score in back-to-back home league games since 2007, hardly a statistic to get fan’s celebrating. Both these sides have the same form from last 6 games (W1 D3 L2), so it should have been a feisty encounter.
A draw against the Premier League champions over the weekend may have been accepted by fans, but failure to clinch all the points will have hurt many.
At least Chelsea fans’ discontent was not so raucous this time around. The deafening boos which greeting Benitez’s home debut was turned on its head this time round, which supporters choosing to opt for a silent protest in a bitterly cold November evening.
Even the Fulham fans who made the massive trek to Stamford Bridge were enjoying themselves. It was almost like people forgot it was a football match they had come to see. The Cottagers teased Benitez by chanting “You’re getting sacked in the morning!”
Chelsea fans continued to make their appreciation felt for their former manager, heart-warmingly singing Di Matteo’s name on the 16th minute, in recognition of his time here as Chelsea’s Number 16.
But, believe it or not, football was going on. Ramires had skied over in the first notable moment of the game, whilst proving assured in his partnership with Romeu anchoring midfield.
Oscar and Torres were linking up well, with Benitez using the diminutive Brazilian as a second striker just behind Torres, in a 4-4-1-1 formation used so effectively at Liverpool with Torres and Steven Gerrard.
But the same rewards were not reaped, and by some margin.
Berbatov, Fulham’s captain for the night, was leading the line well, further examining David Luiz’s defensive abilities.
His attacking prowess was in no doubt, however, as the Brazilian took a free-kick well, but too high to cause any real trouble to Fulham.
Torres’ efforts to show Luiz how to score was hardly a model example, as the Spaniard shot straight at Schwarzer, despite a good turn and good link-up play with his team-mates.
The decision to rest Juan Mata was telling. Ryan Bertrand, despite potential, is no substitute for Juan Mata’s penetrative powers, and without him, the fluidity of Hazard and Oscar just could not come into fruition.
However much Chelsea passed, Fulham were organised and determined. Side to side the ball went, but without any vertical trajectory, Fulham could get their warriors behind the ball and defend well.
It would have been so typical for Chelsea to concede. And the wake-up call was when John Arne Riise broke through. The former Liverpool player was set up beautifully, but with just Petr Cech to beat, managed to completely mis-kick, and the big Czech stopper smothered clear.
Would that serve as a reality check? Put simply, no, even when Mata was brought on just after the hour mark.
Chelsea became more rash as time went on. Fans’ impatience say Ivanovic, Romeu and David Luiz all going into the referee’s book, with the latter now suspended for the West Ham game on Saturday, giving Gary Cahill a chance to get back into contention.
Riise’s left foot continued to test Cech, but a much cleaner connection this time still could not beat Petr Cech, who got down low to make an excellent, vital block.
The deadlock, if not earlier, should definitely have been broken with a quarter of an hour to go. Romeu’s delightful lobbed chip was met by Torres, but though the chest control was divine, it did not have the acrobatic shot to match, tamely trickling goal-wards before it was cleared. It was the Spaniard’s 60th league appearance for the Blues, but with only 11 goals in that time, it is indicative of a striker who simply cannot perform at the highest level again.
And that was the closest either side came. With a point, Chelsea climb up a place. But it can hardly be seen as a positive when all three should have been grasped.
Four shots on targets in 180 minutes on home turf will simply not been enough for expectant fans.
And the singing continued at full-time. Roman Abramovich was frowning on. The Chelsea fan’s message? “We want our Chelsea back!”