Chelsea eased the pressure on Frank Lampard as Mason Mount’s strike 13 minutes from time broke the resistance of 10-man Fulham to earn a 1-0 win in the West London derby on Saturday.
The Blues were languishing down in 10th at kick-off after a run of one win in six league games left Lampard fighting for his job.
But the former England midfielder was handed a gift by Antonee Robinson’s reckless challenge just before half-time that earned the American a straight red card.
Chelsea still struggled to make the extra man advantage count, but Mount’s precise low finish moved the visitors up to seventh and within three points of the top four.
A first defeat in six games rounded off a disappointing day for Fulham after victories earlier on Saturday for relegation rivals Brighton and West Brom.
Scott Parker’s men remain third from bottom and are now four points from safety.
Lampard responded to Chelsea’s poor run by leaving big-money signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz on the bench.
Olivier Giroud was selected ahead of Werner up front and forced French international teammate Alphonse Areola into a smart save as the visitors started brightly.
Mount has maintained Lampard’s faith despite a club record fee being splashed out to bring in Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen and the English international was inches away from rewarding his manager with a thunderous shot that came back off the crossbar.
Fulham were posing a threat themselves on the break and should have gone in front after a brilliant team move.
Robinson’s low cross was turned back across goal by Kenny Tete, but Ivan Cavaleiro’s mishit shot spooned wide.
Moments later, Fulham had a mountain to climb when Robinson dived in on Cesar Azpilicueta and was shown a straight red card.
The hosts were forced to sit deep and doggedly defend wave after wave of Chelsea attack after the break.
Lampard’s men looked most dangerous from set-pieces, though, as Thiago Silva headed wide a golden chance from a corner.
In search of a goal, Lampard first turned to Tammy Abraham from the bench and he headed a huge chance straight at Areola with his first touch.
Christian Pulisic then failed to connect with Hakim Ziyech’s inviting cross seconds later.
A moment of madness from Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy nearly gifted the Cottagers a shock lead at the other end.
Mendy diverted Azpilicueta’s backpass as he raced from his goal into the path of Cavaleiro, who should have done better than fire straight into Silva’s chest with an empty net to aim for.
Werner was finally introduced 17 minutes from time, but it was Lampard’s trusted lieutenant Mount who made the breakthrough as he pounced after Areola flapped at Ben Chilwell’s cross.
Deep into stoppage time, Werner then wasted a great chance to end his 10-game drought without a Premier League goal as he skewed well wide when one-on-one with Areola.
Speaking after the game, Frank Lampard described the victory as a small step forward.
‘The players approached it really well against a team who have had an uplift in form,’ Lampard started
‘The first half we controlled the game even if we got a bit sloppy at the end. With 10 men, the challenge was could we take advantage of this, stay in their half and move the ball quickly. It wasn’t easy because they camped and they knew what they had to do.
‘It was really important to remain calm. Our recent league form has not been what we want and we have gone from being the top goalscorers in the league to not.
‘When you’re facing a low block you have to try and find a pass that goes through a line or a bit of magic. It wasn’t quite there until Mason’s goal, but the patience and movement of the ball was good.
‘It was apt Mason got the goal,’ added Lampard. ‘His overall performance was outstanding, but the spirit of the team was great.
‘It was a small step today in terms of getting us a little bit back on track in the league, but it only counts if we take it forward over this month because we have got some big games coming up.’
Lampard reserved extra praise for Mount who struck for the second game in a row:
‘He’s been very, very good for us. He only turned 22 last week, and he’s an example of our youth. I came to Chelsea at 22 and I wasn’t blowing the world away in my first year at Chelsea, I was finding my feet. Mason has already got so many games under his belt. His effort and attitude was outstanding.’
Lampard also explained why it was so hard to leave Callum Hudson-Odoi out:
‘There has been a real uplift in Callum’s form recently and that is part of his development. Now he’s going by people and showing a lot of confidence. He had to get over a serious injury last season.
‘Hakim gives us something different, he was outstanding in the period he was fit when we were on a really good run, Christian always is a big threat. When those three are fit there’s normally one who can’t start the game, but they must come on and impact the game because you generally make substitutions with wingers.
‘I had Leicester in mind, I’ll have to see how the players react in the next day or two, but in this busy period, the players will have to accept sometimes being an impact. Callum is very exciting at the minute, he’s approaching it all the right way and he’ll get many, many minutes.’