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Fulham’s Scott Parker (right), competes with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta during their English Premier League soccer match at Craven Cottage, London, on March 1. (AP)
Schurrle treble helps Blues extend lead to four points Fulham still in danger

LONDON, March 1, (AFP): Andre Schurrle’s second-half hat-trick helped Chelsea extend their lead at the head of the Premier League to four points following a 3-1 victory at bottom club Fulham on Saturday. Jose Mourinho’s side shook off the effects of their mid-week Champions League trip to Istanbul to play Galatasaray and took full advantage of second-place Arsenal’s defeat at Stoke City. The Europa League champions could stretch their lead even further next week as they face Tottenham Hotspur in the league while Arsenal and Manchester City are on FA Cup duty. Schurrle’s treble came in 17 minutes at the start of the second half and Jonny Heitinga’s 74th-minute goal provided little consolation for Fulham, who remain at the foot of the table, four points adrift of safety. Mourinho had voiced concerns after his side arrived back from the 1-1 draw at Galatasaray in the early hours of Thursday morning, little more than 48 hours before kick-off.

Yet as worried as Mourinho was about his side’s fitness levels, the manager made just two changes to his starting line-up, with Oscar and Nemanja Matic coming in for Willian and Frank Lampard. Fulham had been held to a 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in new manager Felix Magath’s first game in charge last weekend, but prior to Chelsea’s visit he had restated his belief that he could salvage the club’s season. He has also made it clear that £12 million ($20.1 million, 14.6 million euros) January signing Konstantinos Mitroglou is unlikely to feature in the immediate future due to fitness concerns. The former Olympiakos striker played for just 29 minutes at West Brom, but that was enough to persuade Magath that the Greek striker is not ready to play in the Premier League. That meant Clint Dempsey started in support of Darren Bent up front and the American international had a great chance to put the home side ahead after just four minutes when he headed wide from Pajtim Kasami’s left-wing cross.

The miss was always likely to appear costly, but for the remainder of the first half Fulham more than matched Chelsea, creating the better opportunities against their lethargic opponents. The visitors’ best chance came mid-way through the half when Fernando Torres charged down Maarten Stekelenburg’s attempted clearance, but he was unable to place his shot beyond the goalkeeper. The surprise at the start of the second period was that Mourinho had resisted the chance to make changes, with Schurrle one of those fortunate to be given the chance to improve on their first-half showing. And it did not take the German long to justify the faith his manager had shown in him. A neat move seven minutes into the second period saw Schurrle touch a throw-in to Eden Hazard inside the Chelsea half before speeding down the right flank to collect the Belgian’s threaded return.

He then completed the move by cutting inside and placing a left-foot finish beyond Stekelenburg to put the visitors in control. From that point on, the outcome was never in doubt. Schurrle and Hazard combined again to create the second in the 65th minute, with the Belgium international producing another excellent pass - this time with the outside of his right boot - that his team-mate converted with a first-time shot across Stekelenburg. Then, four minutes later, Torres won a header before picking out yet another positive Schurrle run and the Germany international responded with his third ruthless finish of the afternoon. Fulham had been blown away in a 17-minute blast, although they recovered well enough to claim a 74th-minute consolation when Heitinga scrambled home from a Lewis Holtby corner.

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