Football is full of delicious ironies and Chelsea, in recent seasons, have provided enough of them to keep followers of the glorious game enthralled and entertained for days and weeks on end. Going into this evening's west London derby with Fulham, the Blues, if you believe certain sections of the media, were a club in crisis. When referee Andre Marriner blew his final whistle, and courtesy of Southampton's impressive win at Anfield, Chelsea, by virtue of having beaten the Cottagers, climbed above Liverpool to top the Premier League. It may be for only less than a day, but who knows, it might be for longer if Stoke City are able to match the Saints' spirited endeavours on Merseyside by beating Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday, and the Manchester derby ends in a draw. Not bad for a club that on paper has had it's worse start to a season for a decade.
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To underline the irony, who should seal Chelsea's victory? Why, none other than John Mikel Obi. The oft maligned, much misunderstood Blues defensive midfielder lashed home a goal that Jose Mourinho's goal-shy strikers would have been proud of, indeed the Nigeria international gave his teammate Oscar, who had opened the scoring, a run for his money in the man-of-the-match stakes, turning in an impressive display to silence his critics. "He scores when he wants," chanted the home supporters in humorous recognition of the fact that this was Mikel's first Premier League goal in 185 outings -- a record for an outfield player in the PL. But then Mikel Obi isn't selected to score goals or play pretty football. He is there to defend the midfield. Those who persistently knock the player would do well to check out his statistics for the game: the less obvious, but more important of these being his 99 touches of the ball and 92 passes which had a completion rate of 92 percent.
This afternoon, in what was an extended pre-match drinking session for Blues supporters imbibing in the hostelries in and around London SW6, discussions had focused on how Jose Mourinho was drilling down his best 11, second-guessing what that might be and wondering, not for the first time since the Special One returned, if Juan Mata and David Luiz really do figure in the Portuguese's long-term plans. The sight of Luiz driving his Bentley Continental along the Fulham Road 80 minutes before kickoff was a clue he would not be in the squad for the game given prior knowledge that the men that Mourinho planned to work with today had spent last night in the hotel complex at Stamford Bridge. News soon filtered through that Mata had not been in residence either, and when the team and bench were announced it came as no surprise to learn that neither player would be involved in any capacity against Fulham.
In the end, Mourinho's starting 11, contained few surprises. Cech in goal and the defensive quartet of Ivanovic, Cole, Terry and Cahill look, barring injury, to be bedded in for the season. Mikel and Ramires got the nod in the midfield engine room behind creative genius Oscar. Flanking the brilliant Brazilian Hazard and Schurrle and up top once again, almost as if obstinately trying to prove a point, Jose plumped for Samuel Eto'o.
The first half was a cagey affair. Yet again, for all their possession and creativity, Chelsea went into the breather with nothing to show for their endeavours, Eto'o wasting a couple of opportunities when played in by Ivanovic, and Hazard missing when trying his luck from distance. If anything, Fulham could count themselves unlucky not to have led at halftime. On a rare foray forward, Cottagers striker Darren Bent found himself through and one-on-one with Petr Cech, but his shot, when it came, was straight at the Blues' custodian.
During the interval, Chelsea legend Bobby Tambling, formerly the Blues' record goal scorer, made an appearance on the Stamford Bridge turf. Until recently, 71-year-old Tambling had been confined to a wheelchair, but with the help of the club's medical team, his condition had improved to such an extent that this evening he had been able to walk around the pitch drawing a warm round of applause and a few comments that he may well be fit enough now to get changed and lead the line for the Blues in the second-half.
Bobby Tambling wasn't an option for Jose Mourinho, but Fernando Torres was. And the Spaniard soon joined the fray as a replacement for the ineffective Eto'o. By then, Chelsea were already a goal to the good courtesy of Oscar. In the 51st minute, just as some of the natives were beginning to get restless, the Brazilian tapped home after Fulham keeper David Stockdale spilled the ball in front of him. Oscar celebrated with a little Samba jig in front of a delirious Matthew Harding Stand, and with this the home supporters hesitant mood dissipated. From that moment on victory was never really in doubt, though the Blues had to wait a while longer to finish off their obdurate neighbours. It was never going to be pretty, not against Fulham, but a victory is a victory and Chelsea were good value for theirs today. Has Jose Mourinho settled on his preferred starting 11? Who knows? We will learn more next Saturday when the Blues lock horns with Tottenham Hotspur, and the sorcerer Mourinho faces his old apprentice Andre Villas-Boas. Tonight though, the Special One can relax. Crisis club Chelsea are top of the league, and their supporters, as the popular chant concludes, are most certainly "having a laugh."