Maurizio Sarri’s decision to start Kepa against Fulham was repaid as the exiled goalkeeper made a vital late save in their 2-1 derby day win.
All three goals came inside the first half an hour as Gonzalo Higuain and Jorginho scored either side of Calum Chambers’ equaliser. It was Kepa who stole the majority of the headlines as his place in the starting XI was reinstated, allowing him to make a great save to deny Aleksandar Mitrovic from snatching a point.
Both teams started the game with real intensity as Higuain glanced a header wide and Joe Bryan saw a powerful effort from distance saved within the first few minutes. Kepa almost made a complete mess of a poor cross as he dropped it at the feet of Ryan Babel who was far too slow to react, giving the Spaniard the chance to collect it at the second attempt.
The home side were made to rue that missed opportunity as they were dealt a huge blow just moments later. Higuain finally managed to get the better of his marker and got across the front post brilliantly to fire Cesar Azpilicueta’s low cross past Sergio Rico and into the net to give his team the lead.
Scott Parker’s men were soon back on level terms though despite Kepa making a fantastic reaction save to keep out a left-footed half volley from Mitrovic. From the resulting corner, Chambers somehow found himself unmarked at the back post where he was able to steer into the inviting net, much to the dismay of a very animated Sarri.
However, his frustration was eased soon after as Jorginho concluded a crazy 10-minute period with his second goal in a Chelsea shirt and what a beauty it was. He completed a quick one-two with Eden Hazard before effortlessly arrowing a strike right into the top corner of the net to restore the Blues’ lead in the blink of an eye. Higuain had a chance to put the game to bed but after a lovely first touch, his second saw him balloon his shot over the crossbar before Hazard’s low strike was well saved by Rico as he kept the hosts in the game at half-time.
The second half began how the first ended with Chelsea firmly on top and it seemed it would only be a matter of time before they further extended their lead as Willian and Hazard went close after the restart. Fulham had a few chances of their own as the game headed into its final quarter with Tom Cairney and then Ryan Sessegnon seeing shots smartly kept out by the Blues’ number one.
The visitors managed to regain their composure and looked to be seeing the game out in a professional manner before Mitrovic almost denied them a much-needed three points. Floyd Ayite, who had come off the bench, worked some space brilliantly down the wing before steering a cross onto the head of the Serbian whose powerful header was somehow stopped by Kepa at full stretch.
There was still time for late drama in stoppage time as the Cottagers had the ball in the back of the net but as Sessegnon wheeled off in celebration, the linesman cut short the jubilation by raising a flag as the young Englishman had gone early. It was a late scare for Sarri and his players but nothing more than that as they held on for a vital victory to keep them in prime position to secure a top-four place.