Chelsea endured a third consecutive 1-1 draw on Monday, with Clint Dempsey’s equaliser for Fulham further denting their west London rival’s Premier League title hopes.
Reeling from their heaviest home loss for more than 40 years, Fulham managed to score just their fifth away goal this season to capture a point.
Bryan Ruiz tricked his way past Chelsea left back Ashley Cole and crossed to Dempsey, who stabbed the ball past Peter Cech in the 57th minute.
Before Dempsey’s ninth goal of the season, the second half had started well for fourth-place Chelsea with the deadlock broken inside two minutes.
Fernando Torres, on his first league start for almost two months, failed to control Cole’s cross but the ball fell perfectly for Juan Mata to sweep home left footed from the edge of the penalty area.
The draw left Chelsea just two points ahead of Arsenal, which hosts Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday, and 10 points adrift of leader Manchester City, which was at West Bromwich Albion on Monday.
Facing a Fulham side that conceded five goals to Manchester United on Wednesday had seemed like the perfect chance for Chelsea to revive its flagging title aspirations.
But Fulham was a threat from early on, with Dempsey’s bouncing 25m shot forcing an uncomfortable save from Cech and Orlando Sa seeing an effort blocked by David Luiz before wasting a great chance when he headed Stephen Kelly’s cross over the bar.
But Torres was unlucky not to give Chelsea the lead when he expertly controlled Mata’s cross on his chest before smashing his volley straight at David Stockdale.
Torres then robbed Brede Hangeland on the edge of the box and laid off to Daniel Sturridge to slice off target but Fulham settled down again and Mousa Dembele dragged wide after bypassing Oriol Romeu.
Although Jose Bosingwa sent in some dangerous crosses, Chelsea were struggling to produce a telling ball against what was at times a nine-man defence, with Raul Meireles and Romeu resorting to wayward potshots.
After Chelsea’s lead lasted barely 10 minutes, manager Andre Villas-Boas took action just past the hour mark, hauling off Frank Lampard for Florent Malouda.
The change almost paid off when the Frenchman’s backheel from John Terry’s header hit the feet of Stockdale and bounced back off Malouda for a goalkick.
Villas-Boas then threw on Didier Drogba for Sturridge, but the striker failed to beat Stockdale from a tight angle after gathering a terrific long ball from Luiz while Meireles also curled a shot on the turn just past the post.
Stockdale twice denied Chelsea a late winner, tipping Meireles’ header from Malouda’s cross over the bar, before palming away Drogba’s glance from a corner.
The English goalkeeper nearly spilt Malouda’s long-range drive before making a fingertip block on Drogba’s stoppage time free kick. — Sapa-AP