A hat-trick in a span of 16 minutes from Andre Schurrle powered Chelsea to a comfortable 3-1 victory over Fulham on Saturday, although it was Eden Hazard who was truly the architect of the victory.
The Blues, coming off a 1-1 draw against Galatasaray in the Champions League in midweek, looked below-par for large parts of the first half before Hazard decided to take over the show, providing both assists, as Schurrle put Jose Mourinho’s side in control shortly after the break.
The German then completed his hat-trick just minutes later after strong work from Fernando Torres, with John Heitinga’s 74th-minute finish ultimately proving to be little more than a consolation for Fulham, who remain rooted to the bottom of the league.
Chelsea, however, are now four points clear at the top of the table—with Manchester City not in league action this weekend and Arsenal having surprisingly been beaten by Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.
Afterwards, Mourinho told the BBC that his team talk—or lack of one—had made an impact:
At half-time, I told them nothing—nothing—not a word. I walked in, then I walked out. I don't know if anyone else gave a team talk. I was not inside the dressing room. The second half was a great reaction to the worst performance of the season.
The second half was one of the best performances of the season. Schurrle is cold in front of the goal.
It took barely two minutes for the first big chance of the match, and it fell to Fulham. Pajtim Kasami’s cross into the middle was well-measured, but Clint Dempsey, starting in the final match of his short-term loan spell, failed to get his header on target.
That chance was something of a false dawn, however, with the rest of the half high on endeavour (from Fulham’s players) but noticeably low on real quality or cutting edge.
Indeed, Chelsea’s two best chances were both the result of Maarten Stekelenburg errors—a scuffed clearance forcing desperate measures from his defenders before Torres charged down a second clearance and only narrowly shot wide.
The rest of the half was characterised by strong midfield challenges and a lack of an incisive pass in either final third, with both Ramires and Kasami failing with late shots from distance.
Eventually, however, Chelsea sprang into life—and it was primarily thanks to Hazard. The Belgian was instrumental in the opener, playing Schurrle through down the left. The German, who up until that point had been rather poor, still had a lot to do but did it with aplomb, cutting across in front of the recovering Dan Burn before slotting his shot under Stekelenburg.
The relief among the Chelsea players was palpable.
From that point on, the Blues looked to be more comfortable, and Hazard’s influence only grew. Chelsea’s second nearly came from another moment of wizardry from the forward, but Burn was just able to get ahead of Torres before the Spaniard could turn home Hazard’s perfectly weighted cross.
Soon after the Blues did double their advantage, and it was the same combination as before. Branislav Ivanovic won the ball deep in his own half and sparked a counter-attack, one that became exponentially more dangerous once Hazard was given the ball 35 yards out. The Belgian dribbled to the edge of the box and then played through a perfect ball for Schurrle, who arrowed his strike into the far corner to effectively seal the points.
The German seemed desperate for his hat-trick, selfishly taking on a difficult effort moments after his second, but within minutes he had it. However, this time it was Torres who was the facilitator. The Spaniard beat Burn in the air and fed Schurrle, with the No. 14 making no mistake with his finish.
Having seen the game slip away so quickly, Fulham eventually got a consolation, as Heitinga tapped one in following a corner, but manager Felix Magath will be acutely aware that he still has much to do to turn this side into one that is stable and organised enough to avoid the drop.
Magath, also speaking to the BBC, said:
Chelsea were too good for us. They played very well, wanted to win and were the better team. There were some good situations for us in the first half but we are responsible for not playing so well.
We will not stay up with this kind of defending and need to learn better. The biggest problem was that our captain [Brede Hangeland] was gone after a few minutes. If he could have played the whole game, we could have had a different result.
You cannot ask for a win against the Premier League leaders, so the next games are the ones we will be looking to win.
Chelsea, in contrast, now have a bit of breathing space between them and their nearest challengers. Not that Mourinho is getting ahead of himself.
"We have have four points more than Arsenal," he noted, via BBC, "(but) the gap to Man City is a fake advantage. If they win their games in hand, they're top of the league. We're behind them."
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Chelsea now have a week before their next league encounter, which is against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge. Fulham, meanwhile, travel to Cardiff for what feels like a vital relegation six-pointer.