Claudio Ranieri has taken some stick this season for his choice of substitutions; they can seem as abstruse as his post-match press conferences. But last night Mikael Forssell, who has made a habit of coming off the bench to score, did so again - for the eighth time this season - this one a winner. He is, said his manager with a relieved sweep of the arm and a happy lift of the brow, "a good, good player. He has everything he needs to go forward."
Perhaps it was down to the glare of the brand-new turf - "Fantastic!" adjudged Ranieri with a wild bellow - but both sides came out looking as though they had been kept waiting, revving up, for long enough and were now impatient to see green.
The pace was furious from the start. Barely two minutes had passed when Marcel Desailly was watching his toed shot edge past Edwin van der Sar's post. Before five had elapsed, Abdeslam Ouaddou was rising at the other end to meet a Steed Malbranque corner, his header wobbling under the bar before plopping down and out.
Chelsea and Fulham have in common early-season statements of ambition and, while Chelsea seem fatefully coupled with the epithet "underachieving", Fulham have probably been guilty of a little over-aspiring. Last night the two seemed to meet somewhere in the middle.
Given the closeness of the encounter it seemed only right that seconds after Mario Melchiot sent his long-range shot bobbling through the Fulham defence to give Chelsea the lead, the referee was pointing firmly to the spot in front of Carlo Cudicini's goal. William Gallas had brought down Louis Saha in the box; an invading fan had been escorted away, Cudicini went to the right, Saha to the left and all was level.
If Fulham had taken their chances, the result might have been different. But when Eidur Gudjohnsen found himself bearing down on Van der Sar from 15 yards out, the combination of space and opportunity proved irresistible.
Had either Saha or Steve Marlet managed to reach the same conclusion from equally promising premises towards the end of the first half, Fulham might have taken the share they deserved from this game. "I think we were worth a minimum of one point," nodded Jean Tigana, apparently unperturbed by his side's fourth consecutive defeat, the worst run since his accession as manager. "But it is not a problem. We played really well. All the time we create chances away from home but we need to score. We need to learn, we need to progress."
At least he now knows that Saha, who threw his head into the aerial space fast being occupied by Desailly's foot for Fulham's second, is capable of finding the target. When these two teams met in September in their much hailed first derby in 16 years, there was plenty of good-looking football but not enough plain finishing. Last night the intentions on both sides were clearer, the execution messier.
As Ranieri, whose analysis sounded more than ever as though it had been scripted by Fellini, said: "The truth is always in the middle."
FORGET the Terminator, Chelsea have got their very own Finnisher.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen might be the most potent partnership, but, when Claudio Ranieri is in a tight corner, he turns to Mikael Forssell.
The fabulous Finn scored his eighth of the season to condemn Jean Tigana to his worst run at Fulham.
Incredibly, every one of Forssell's goals has been scored after coming off the bench.
Chelsea's fading UEFA Cup hopes were heading for the scrapheap when Forssell replaced the injured Gudjohnsen after Louis Saha's 72nd-minute Fulham leveller.
Yet, within 10 minutes the points were in the bag as Forssell controlled a cross from fellow sub Jesper Gronkjaer and hammered the winner past Edwin van der Sar.
Ranieri said: "What Mikael does is fantastic for us. He is such a good young player with so much character. It is difficult for any striker to be behind Jimmy and Eidur but Mikael has everything in place to go on from here.
"He is strong, has good quality, fights for every ball and is a great finisher."
If the rest of his team-mates were as reliable, Ranieri would not be sweating on his future right now.
The Blues certainly did their best to chuck away a gilt-edged chance to edge closer to Europe. Twice, they moved into the lead through Mario Melchiot and Gudjohnsen and twice they allowed Saha to claw their neighbours back into contention.
The only shock was they held out for the final eight minutes after Forssell's late lifeline condemned Fulham to a fourth successive defeat.
The visitors found themselves one down when they paid for some defensive uncertainty, backing off Melchiot and giving the full-back space to fire a low 25-yard drive beyond Van der Sar.
That should started a Chelsea onslaught, yet Fulham were back on level terms when Saha's run into the box was ended by William Gallas.
It looked to be a magnificent challenge but ref Peter Jones saw it differently and awarded the penalty which Saha confidently despatched.
With West London's first derby since 1984 threatening to run out of control, it was a time for calm heads.
Fortunately for Chelsea, they do not come much cooler than Gudjohnsen as he raced on to Graeme Le Saux's 28th-minute through-ball to net his 19th goal of the season.
Saha spurned two excellent opportunities to level again but his persistence paid off in the 71st minute when he forced his way ahead of Gallas to head Steve Marlet's inviting cross past Carlo Cudicini.
Yet even that was not enough to save Tigana's team. And the French boss moaned: "We had so many chances, but this is not the first time this has happened to us. I'm used to it now.
"It's difficult for the players to accept because they have played well and got nothing."
"No excuses now", declared Ken Bates. "We want beautiful football." The Chelsea chairman, writing in last night's match programme, was referring to the £125,000 investment in new turf following Claudio Ranieri's withering criticism of the Stamford Bridge pitch.
In the event it was the result, rather than the football, which was "beautiful" but in the circumstances (crushing debt, huge wage bill, two places off a Champions' League spot) Bates will settle for that. They also secured local bragging rights with this hard-earned win. Both Mario Melchiot and Eidur Gudjohnsen put Chelsea ahead but Louis Saha cancelled out each goal only for Mikael Forsell to once again prove a match-winning substitute.
Though Chelsea remain sixth, Leeds having rediscovered the art of winning to stay a point ahead, Newcastle's defeat means the Champions' League is now eight points away. "It was very important to win," said Ranieri. "We played well in the first half. In the second half I was happy with the result."
While Chelsea look to Europe, Fulham have their eyes on Wales. On Sunday they travel to West Bromwich for an FA Cup sixth round tie. This was their fourth successive defeat but their manager Jean Tigana insisted: "I won't have to lift people because we played well."
While the clubs are only separated by the length of the Fulham Road, this local derby does not arouse passions like those contested in Glasgow, Manchester or even north London. That said, one fan did get carried away; he came on the pitch after Fulham were awarded a penalty. Gianfranco Zola reacted quickly, persuading him to leave, and he was led away by stewards. The incident will be in the reports of both the referee and the match observer. The latter, Colin Downey, said he felt Zola and Chelsea had dealt with it well.
Assuming he was ejected, the fan had seen a lively opening 20 minutes. Marcel Desailly, rumbling forward to reprise his Milan days, could have scored from Graeme Le Saux's cross in the second minute, while Steve Marlet, four minutes, later headed Steed Malbranque's corner against the bar.
Chelsea, with their injury list shrinking, had been able to return Emmanuel Petit to midfield. Ranieri gave Zola a free role behind the front two and told Le Saux to push on up the left flank and keep Steve Finnan, a key outlet for Fulham, occupied.
That worked, as did Zola's deployment, but while it was no surprise when Chelsea took the lead the scorer was unexpected. There seemed no danger as Melchiot approached the box in the 18th minute but he caught Edwin van der Sar unawares with a 25-yard shot which may have been deflected as it went through a crowd of players.
Fulham levelled immediately. Malbranque released Saha and William Gallas was harshly adjudged to have brought him down in the box. After Zola had persuaded the fan to leave, Saha scored from the spot.
Chelsea's response was just as vibrant. After Zola brought two saves, one of them exceptional, from Van der Sar, Le Saux released Gudjohnsen in the inside right-channel. His 19th goal of the season was a formality.
Saha, similarly set up by Marlet, could not follow suit. With Abdeslam Ouaddou putting a free header wide, and the referee dismissing a second, more justified, penalty claim, Chelsea held their lead until the 72nd minute. Marlet was then sent down the left flank and Saha got ahead of Gallas to bundle his cross in. It was time for 'supersub'.
On came Forsell and, from his fellow substitute Jesper Gronkjaer's delicate cross, the Finn struck his eighth goal from the bench with eight minutes to go. Chelsea may yet avoid the Intertoto.
Fulham were beaten by a goal from Mikael Forssell eight minutes from time in the West London derby at Stamford Bridge, the Finland forward coming off the bench to score his eighth goal of the season, all of which have come as a substitute.
Last night's settled an entertaining encounter in which Fulham twice came from behind to level the score, but, despite their contribution, they have now lost four FA Barclaycard Premiership matches in succession and taken only five points from the past 24. Jean Tigana, the manager, was pleased with the performance, however. "I think we deserved one point minimum," he said. "We played well against Liverpool (on Saturday) and again tonight and we got nothing, but we tried to play.
"I was more disappointed against Arsenal, when we didn't play. This year we have learnt in every game and I think we need to win three more games to stay in the top level."
Fulham also received a vote of confidence from Claudio Ranieri. "All Fulham's players played very well, but perhaps they need a striker who doesn't play well but scores goals," the Chelsea head coach said. "It was very important for us to win tonight. In the first half I was happy; in the second half I was happy with the result."
Fulham had already struck the Chelsea crossbar when they went behind after 21 minutes. Mario Melchiot, who had earlier supplied a dangerous through-pass for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to fire a warning shot into the side-netting, advanced down the right, cut inside and shot with his left foot from 20 yards, the ball appearing to take a small but significant deflection off Rufus Brevett as it sped past Edwin van der Sar.
However, Chelsea did not have long to enjoy their lead. Within 60 seconds, Louis Saha charged into the Chelsea penalty area and fell under the challenge of William Gallas. The defender's tackle made at least some contact with the ball, but Peter Jones, the referee, awarded a penalty and, after stewards had wrestled away an irate spectator, Saha converted it confidently.
That seemed to sting Chelsea. Van der Sar threw himself to his left to turn aside Gianfranco Zola's first-time shot from a cross by Emmanuel Petit, but he could not stop Eidur Gudjohnsen when he ran on to a pass from the halfway line by Graeme Le Saux, turned smoothly inside Abdeslam Ouaddou and shot home his nineteenth goal of the season, from the edge of the penalty area.
Fulham pressed strongly again before half-time, but when Steve Marlet was felled by Frank Lampard, no penalty was awarded. "If the ref had seen the second penalty, it could have changed the game," Tigana said.
"It was the same against Charlton, Ipswich, Middlesbrough - I send the tape to the referee and they always say, 'Yes, it was a penalty,' but we still lose the points."
Nevertheless, Steed Malbranque and John Collins continued to dominate midfield and after 72 minutes Collins sent a long pass down the left, where Marlet reached it and crossed for Saha, who headed in bravely from six yards, risking decapitation as Gallas attempted to clear with an overhead kick. It was Saha's eighth goal of the season, but, to emphasise Ranieri's point, only his third in 2002.
Chelsea's reaction was to throw on Forssell. After 82 minutes he chested down Jesper Gronkjaer's cross and, with Van der Sar appealing for handball, struck the winner.
Both teams now turn their attention to the FA Cup quarter-finals. Fulham travel to West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea hope to take revenge on Tottenham Hotspur for their 5-1 Worthington Cup semi-final, second leg defeat. "We are strong, with confidence, but everyone remembers the five goals," he said.
Although Chelsea have now won four of their past six league matches, a Champions League place remains eight points distant, but Ranieri has not given up and refuses to prioritise either Cup or league. "I want to win every game," he said. "In Italy, we say it's important to win, not just participate. If we don't get there, at least everybody tried."