Chelsea cruise past Fulham
Didier Drogba (Gallo Images)
London - Chelsea fired a warning shot at Barcelona ahead of their Champions League clash this week by crushing Fulham 3-1 in Saturday's west London derby at Stamford Bridge.
A goal apiece for the impressive Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba saw Chelsea tighten their grip on third place in the English Premiership, but of more significance was the message sent out ahead of the semi-final second leg with Barcelona on Wednesday.
Chelsea had been accused by the Catalan club of employing negative tactics in last week's first leg at the Nou Camp, which finished in a goalless draw.
But this zesty display provided emphatic confirmation that Guus Hiddink's side, for all their physicality, also possess a razor-sharp attacking edge. Hiddink also saw his gamble in fielding his strongest side pay off, with all his A-list stars emerging unscathed.
There was a nervy moment in the second half when Drogba needed two minutes of treatment after being clattered by John Pantsil, but the striker was able to carry on comfortably enough until he was substituted, purely as a precaution, in the 84th minute.
That might just have been the most satisfying result of the afternoon for Hiddink, although the Dutchman should not be oblivious to the fact that the polished performances of Drogba, Malouda and Anelka papered over some worrying defensive cracks.
These were especially evident in the first half, when Fulham, despite missing two of their first-choice attackers in Andy Johnson and Simon Davies, might easily have plundered more than just one goal.
Hiddink, however, will doubtless prefer to focus on the bright and breezy football which regularly reduced Fulham's normally cast-iron back-line to quivering wrecks.
The visitors had barely even touched the ball when they found themselves behind in the 52nd second.
A neat exchange between Anelka and Malouda ended with the latter teeing up Drogba and, after the Ivorian's lay-off evaded Brede Hangeland, Anelka fired past Mark Schwarzer.
Perhaps Chelsea were lulled into complacency by that early breakthrough. They were certainly unusually lax in the fourth minute in allowing Nevland to spring their offside trap and sprint onto Danny Murphy's through-ball.
The Norwegian's shot across Cech was well struck but should still have been saved: instead, it squirmed through the Czech goalkeeper's fingers.
The home fans were silenced, but not for long. Six minutes later, Anelka set Drogba clear down the right and, after Pantsil failed to cut out his cross, Malouda found the far corner with his first-time shot.
Hiddink might have expected his side to seize the game by the scruff of the neck after that, but still Fulham sensed opportunities.
Nevland volleyed fractionally over the crossbar - his last meaningful contribution before limping off injured - and Bobby Zamora's header forced Cech to scramble across his goal before it sneaked past the post.
With Zoltan Gera also seeing a shot loop just over after deflecting off John Terry, it was Chelsea who were more in need of the interval, if only so Hiddink could drum in some defensive home truths.
Once again, the interim manager proved his worth. Alex and Michael Essien were hauled off but the changes hardly proved disruptive. Within eight minutes of the re-start, Anelka slid a precise pass behind Paul Konchesky and Drogba shot under the diving Schwarzer.
That gave Chelsea the breathing space they needed and they duly ran down the remaining half-an-hour, expending just enough energy to keep their lead intact while also keeping themselves fresh for Barcelona, the game that will ultimately define their season.