Champions League fight to go to wire, says Di Matteo

FULHAM (1) vs CHELSEA (1)

Chelsea boss predicts tight battle after late Dempsey goal denies Blues top-four boost

CHELSEA manager Roberto di Matteo expects the four-way skirmish for two Champions League places to remain unresolved until the final day of the season, after local rivals Fulham dented their hopes last night.

Midfielder Frank Lampard’s penalty looked to have set the Blues on their way to a derby victory that would have lifted them level on points with fourth-placed Tottenham, beaten yesterday by Norwich.

But free-scoring Clint Dempsey’s late header – the Fulham star’s 16th Premier League goal of the season and 22nd in all competitions – pegged them back to sixth in the table.

It means Chelsea lie four points behind Arsenal, who look safe in third with a game in hand, and two adrift of Spurs and fast-finishing Newcastle, with Di Matteo predicting more twists in the final five fixtures.

“I think it is going to go down to the last game. It is a very competitive league. We have an experienced team and very good players and we will raise our game for the next challenge,” said the interim boss. “When you are playing catch-up the pressure is always on the team behind. We have got another point closer to Tottenham and that is how I see it. We have to think positively.”

Fulham manager Martin Jol, whose team climbed to ninth, labelled the penalty award “soft” and reiterated his determination to keep Dempsey. “We won’t sell him, so that is easy,” said Jol.

Di Matteo changed more than half of his starting XI for a third game in six days, and with FA Cup and Champions League ties against Tottenham and Barcelona on the horizon.

The freshening effect was largely cosmetic, however, with Chelsea labouring until referee Mark Clattenburg noticed Stephen Kelly’s faint contact with Salomon Kalou and awarded a penalty. Lampard drove his spot-kick low and to goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer’s right to hand the visitors a timely advantage just before half-time.

Kalou might have stretched the Blues’ lead but missed a header, while Fulham’s John Arne Riise fired wide and Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech turned an Aaron Hughes header behind for a corner. From that 82nd-minute set-piece Dempsey escaped John Terry, playing despite cracked ribs, and planted a downward header towards the far corner, which it found via a deflection off Gary Cahill.