Late red card sours boost to Chelsea’s title charge

CHELSEA 1 vs FULHAM 0

CHELSEA manager Carlo Ancelotti leapt to the defence of Michael Essien after the midfielder’s match-winning heroics were soured by a straight red card in stoppage time.

Essien notched the only goal of the game, and extended the Blues’ lead at the top of the table to four points, when he met Salomon Kalou’s left-wing cross with a bullet header on the half-hour mark.

But the Ghanaian blotted his copybook in the dying moments when he appeared to leap in two-footed on Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, prompting referee Martin Atkinson to send him off.

Essien now faces a three-match ban, meaning he would miss fixtures against Sunderland, Birmingham and Newcastle, but Ancelotti hinted the club may appeal Atkinson’s decision, insisting the challenge was harmless.

“I don’t like to judge the decision,” he said. “But maybe it wasn’t a red card because Essien made a strong tackle, but on the ball. There was not a risk on the opponent. I think he went for the ball, the last ball of the game, an important ball.

“I’m not sure it was a sending-off. I’d like to see it again but directly, on the pitch, I didn’t think it was a dangerous tackle. I hope we won’t lose him for three games – that would be a problem. We have to wait; I want to watch the replay before doing anything.”

Fulham manager Mark Hughes was wholehearted in his support for Atkinson’s decision, and cited an apparent injury to Chelsea striker Didier Drogba as a distraction to his defenders in the build-up to Essien’s goal.

“The guy has jumped in with two feet, so it’s a straight red,” he said. “As for the goal, that’s a disappointment. We were distracted by Drogba lying prone in the box. You still have to play to the whistle, so maybe we were guilty of expecting the referee to blow up. He didn’t and we paid the penalty.”

Victory saw Chelsea equal a club record of nine consecutive clean sheets at Stamford Bridge, while the draw in the Manchester derby at Eastlands allowed the Blues to stretch their gap. Ancelotti added: “The Manchester result was good for us, though, to be four points clear. That’s a good gap. Nothing is decided, but that’s a good gap. We’d like to stay there in that position.”

Essien was sorely missed by Chelsea in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, and proved his worth last night with the goal and a typically tireless performance. He, Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba all threatened to increase the lead, while Dempsey and Zoltan Gera tested Petr Cech from distance late on.

Tempers fray on X-rated night for top-flight stars

Chelsea hero Essien is shown a straight red card for a two-footed, off-the-ground tackle on Fulham’s Clint Dempsey

Wolves’ Stephen Ward is carried off on a stretcher after a late tackle from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas that sparked controversy

Arguably the Manchester derby’s most notable action was when ex-United star Carlos Tevez (left) squared up to old colleague Rafael