In the visiting dugout, Claudio Ranieri spun on his heels and vented to the heavens. He had seen this script before and in the heady days of Leicester City’s title push, Ranieri was the director of the piece. This time, however, the plot was agonising.
On the centre-circle, N’Golo Kante appeared in a flash, picking the pocket of Fulham’s expensive summer signing Jean-Michel Seri and he was now speeding towards the penalty area. The worst was yet to come.
The Frenchman powered on, teeing up Pedro, who jinked by his marker and clinically dispatched the finish. Inside four minutes, Fulham were a goal down and Ranieri was undone by a player he knows better than most.
MATCH FACTS AND STATS
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa 7; Azpilicueta 6, Rudiger 6.5, Luiz 6, Alonso 5.5 (Zappacosta 78); Kante 7, Jorginho 6, Kovacic 6 (Loftus-Cheek 67, 7); Pedro 7.5, Giroud 5.5 (Morata 70, 5), Hazard 6.5
Subs not used: Caballero, Fabregas, Willian, Christensen
Manager: Maurizio Sarri 7
Scorers: Pedro (4), Loftus-Cheek (82)
Booked: Azpilicueta, Morata
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Rico 6.5; Christie 5.5, Odoi 6, Mawson 6, Le Marchand 5.5; Chambers 6.5, Seri 4.5; Sessegnon 5 (Kamara 45, 6), Cairney 6 (Kebano 76, 6), Johansen 6 (Ayite 45, 6); Mitrovic 6
Subs not used: Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Cisse
Manager: Claudio Ranieri 6
Referee: Craig Pawson 6.
We gave a good present,’ Ranieri said. ‘We’d spoken all week about this. The Sarri philosophy is to press, no? I said to try and play forward in midfield and if we lose the ball, we would have midfielders to cover. But one thing to speak, and another to do.’
After Maurizio Sarri criticised Kante’s tactical ill-discipline at Tottenham last week, this was a reminder of the midfielder at his most devastating but also proof that he can influence games even in Sarri’s system.
‘Today he was better,’ Sarri said. ‘He needs to improve a little more from the tactical point of view, but it’s natural. I remember only one mistake in the first half.’
As for Ranieri, this one moment encapsulated much of what has derailed Fulham’s return to the Premier League. Fulham actually started on the front foot and their play was mostly impressive.
Yet Slavisa Jokanovic’s best-laid plans were often undermined by individual lapses and so it was here for Ranieri. Seri’s mistake, caught sleeping in the centre of midfield, was fatal and such moments explain why Fulham are the only one of the 92 league sides in English football still to keep a clean sheet this season.