Third place once again belongs to Chelsea, and on Wednesday's evidence, it now looks like it's theirs to lose.
Chelsea bounced back from FA Cup disappointment to beat Fulham 3-0 on Wednesday night at Craven Cottage in a one-sided Premier League London derby. All three goals came from central defenders—a stunner from David Luiz and two from John Terry—and they came just early enough that interim manager Rafa Benitez was able to give a few regulars some much-needed rest.
Chelsea entered the match in the midst of some monstrous fixture pileup. In less than a week, the Blues have now played three times in three different competitions, and another big fixture—at Liverpool in the league—awaits this weekend.
Last Thursday, Benitez's team lost 3-2 in Russia to Rubin Kazan but advanced to the semifinals of the UEFA Europa League anyway. On Sunday, they lost 2-1 to Manchester City at Wembley in an FA Cup semifinal.
Such a schedule could have meant Fulham fancied their chances of turning around a run of one win in their last 23 league matches against Chelsea. Then again, the Cottagers entered in 10th position, safe from any relegation fears but also well off the pace for European qualification. That boded well for an uneventful night for Chelsea; an omen that proved true.
With the win, Chelsea reclaimed third place, one point ahead of Arsenal with a match in hand. The Blues lead Tottenham by three points, having played the same number of matches. For Fulham, even after the loss, there will be another chance to influence the fight for the top four when Arsenal visit this weekend.
Benitez made four changes to the squad that lost to City over the weekend. Terry, the captain, returned to central defense, while another veteran, Frank Lampard, replaced John Obi Mikel in the holding midfield. Victor Moses replaced Oscar in the attacking midfield, and masked-man Fernando Torres started ahead of Demba Ba at striker.
Fulham's Damien Duff missed out against his old club after sustaining an injury Saturday against Aston Villa. Steve Sidwell sat out through suspension. Within three minutes, the hosts nearly went ahead. Sascha Riether found Bryan Ruiz with a dangerous cross from the right, but Ruiz blasted the ball high and wide.
The Costa Rican should have done better with his chance, but Fulham remained in Chelsea's end for much of the first 10 minutes. Lampard produced Chelsea's first chance in the ninth minute, flashing a side-angled shot at Mark Schwarzer after Brede Hangeland's failed clearance.
Giorgos Karagounis came close in the 24th minute, curling a shot over from distance after cutting in from the left. Six minutes later, a moment of brilliance broke the deadlock.
There seemed to be no danger as Luiz collected a pass more than 30 yards from goal. But the Brazilian uncorked a swerving shot that dipped over Schwarzer and into the top corner for a stunning goal.
It was the perfect way to mark Luiz's 100th appearance for Chelsea, and it broke a personal 22-game scoring drought.
Soon afterward, both teams had chances—but only Chelsea converted.
Fulham's Urby Emanuelson forced a diving save from Petr Cech in the 36th minute, driving across the top of the box before shooting low across his body toward the back post. Five minutes later, Dimitar Berbatov bent a shot just wide of the near post with the outside of his foot. At the other end, Lampard's long free kick momentarily confused Schwarzer, who had to punch the ball away.
Chelsea doubled their advantage seconds later, with Terry heading home Juan Mata's long cross from the right. While Fulham had no chance to stop Luiz's brilliant opener, the second had more to do with the hosts' lax marking.
In both cases, Fulham conceded too much time and space to their visitors. And in both cases, Chelsea took advantage with lethal results.
Comfortable Second Half
From there, Chelsea maintained control. Fulham appealed for a penalty just before the half, but Ruiz drew a yellow card for what referee Mike Dean ruled was simulation.
After the break, the Blues cruised. Torres' cross from the right was slightly too hard and too deep for Mata to turn into the net in the 59th minute. Lampard—still three goals from setting Chelsea's scoring record—later had a shot blocked before mis-hitting the rebound.
Fulham's Philippe Senderos nodded a powerful header on goal from a corner in the 69th minute, but with the ball seemingly headed into the net, teammate Mladen Petric somehow redirected the ball over from extreme short distance. Petric was ruled offside, and it appeared Senderos' header would have gone into the goal.
Moments later, Chelsea had their third goal, again after poor marking from Fulham. Torres headed on a corner and Terry nodded the ball in for his second of the night.
Benitez, who had introduced Oscar in place of the ineffective Eden Hazard, two minutes before Terry's second goal, made two substitutions after that. Mikel replaced Ramires in midfield, and Ba joined Torres up top, with Mata sacrificed. Three regulars escaped a full 90 minutes, a factor that could play to Chelsea's favor this weekend against Liverpool.
With three points gained, Chelsea returned to third place and righted the ship after a tough loss in the FA Cup.
The run-in becomes no easier from here, with games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton remaining. In between there are the two legs of the Europa League semifinal against a tough Basel side.
But Wednesday's performance will go some way to building momentum, and Benitez hardly could have asked for a better result.