LONDON — John Obi Mikel’s first English Premier League goal helped to end Chelsea’s four-game winless run in a 2-0 victory over Fulham on Saturday.
After Oscar powered in the opener early in the second half, Mikel sliced the ball into the net in the 84th minute of the west London derby.
“They have been killing me about it — going to the national team and scoring but not here,” the Nigeria midfielder said. “I’m sure the guys will give me a lot of stick.”
Mikel had previously scored only twice for Chelsea, in the FA Cup in January 2007 during Jose Mourinho’s first reign as manager.
Mourinho’s return has not gone to plan, presiding over the club’s worst start to a season since Roman Abramovich’s investment started a decade ago.
This victory, however unconvincing, enabled Chelsea to dislodge Liverpool from the top of the standings ahead of Sunday’s games.
“We know our fans have been disappointed about a few performances going into these games so we wanted to give them something to cheer,” Mikel said.
But the season is barely a month old, enabling Mourinho to dismiss the early criticism.
“To lose is a normal thing and it looks like for us it’s the end of the world,” Mourinho said. “Some of (the teams) started the Premier League in a brilliant way, we started in a very bad way … I read it was a disaster.”
Chelsea’s ability to remain among the title contenders will hinge on rediscovering the cutting edge that’s been missing.
To achieve that, Mourinho has shown he’s willing to risk antagonizing his squad with public criticism.
Midfielder Juan Mata and defender David Luiz were both in Mourinho’s firing line on Saturday as they were left out of the squad and saw their abilities called into question.
Mourinho knows his return to Chelsea after six years has not matched the expectations of fans who were ecstatic when the season began with a pair of wins.
A draw and a loss domestically was followed by a losing start to the Champions League group stage, provoking a smattering of boos at Stamford Bridge after Wednesday’s loss to Basel.
“Sorry about your disappointment,” Mourinho wrote in the matchday program. “But we will give you happiness.”
Maintaining harmony in the squad will be as important.
The ostracizing of midfielder Mata, last season’s player of the year, has baffled many.
Mata’s displays this season so far were “not convincing,” Mourinho said as he justified dropping the Spaniard again on Saturday and warning that he has to “fight and work for his opportunities.”
That will come in the League Cup against Swindon on Tuesday.
“I hope he tells me on the pitch, ‘You are wrong, I’m the best and I have to play every game,'” Mourinho said. “I would love that. I’m waiting for a professional reaction.”
Mourinho also publicly castigated Luiz for his defensive performance in the 2-1 loss to Basle on Wednesday.
Yet, Mourinho kept faith with Samuel Eto’o to lead the strike force against Fulham, despite publicly doubting his sharpness against Basel.
Eto’o rarely came close to opening his account for Chelsea since joining from Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, volleying wide and heading off target in the first half.
Fulham, though, was even more ineffective up front as it slumped to a ninth loss in 12 matches stretching back to last season.
“The first 50 minutes they were really worried,” Fulham manager Martin Jol said. “They couldn’t find the space, they couldn’t find a solution and that is probably the moment you have to punish them and we couldn’t do that.”
And the visitors were breached seven minutes into the second half.
Goalkeeper David Stockdale parried from Andre Schurrle and couldn’t keep hold of Eto’o’s shot before Oscar blasted in the goal.
To cheers, Eto’o was replaced in the 64th by Fernando Torres, the only Chelsea striker to find the net this season.
After Torres had a header pushed over Stockdale, the second goal came from the resulting corner from the unlikely source of Mikel after John Terry nodded the ball into this path.
“The second half they stepped up a gear, they were more aggressive than us and that is what showed,” Jol said.