For all the chopping and changing among Chelsea’s star-studded squad, in search of the formula that might return this hugely talented crop to the kind of form they were showing only weeks ago, Mason Mount’s presence is now non-negotiable.
So, on a night when Frank Lampard’s team selection and Chelsea’s subsequent performance only added to the suspicion that the Blues boss is still no closer to settling his best team, it was fitting that it was Mount who eventually found a way past a determined, ten-man Fulham.
The England international rifled home in the 78th minute as the Blues finally breached a defence that was threatening to hold on for an improbable sixth successive draw.
The pressure on Lampard should not intensify after this display - a result was always more important than a performance after a run of four defeats in six in the league - but it is unlikely to subside either.
Goals for Timo Werner and Kai Havertz against Morecambe in the cup were supposed to have given them a quick hit of confidence, but Lampard risked it evaporating by immediately benching the pair. Billy Gilmour and Callum Hudson-Odoi, two young players who’ve been in excellent form - and whom Chelsea fans are clamouring for - were left out too, despite N’Golo Kante’s suspension and Werner’s omission offering openings.
Perhaps the pair's stock has risen so much that Lampard has them pencilled in for Tuesday’s trip to Leicester, but with his team so desperate for points, and in a derby no less, such prioritisation is a luxury the 42-year-old can scarcely afford.
The Blues boss even introduced a question where there appeared to be none, breaking up Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva’s excellent defensive partnership to hand Antonio Rudiger a second start in three league matches, the German having started just one in 15 before that, though he seized his chance with a solid display.
Only the decision to leave Reece James on the bench rather than risk rushing him back, as had been the case against Arsenal on Boxing Day, could be deemed an obviously sensible one. Mind you, it did not always look like paying off as Cesar Azpilicueta was given the run-around by Antonee Robinson, only handed a bittersweet reprieve when on the receiving end of a thumping challenge which earned the Fulham man a red card.
Until that point the hosts had threatened, Ivan Cavaleiro wasting the first-half’s best chance, though, predictably, it was Mount who had gone closest to opening the scoring, striking the bar at the other end.
The blue bombardment began immediately after the restart and twelve minutes from time Mount was more accurate, to Lampard’s relief, producing the strike that lifts his side to seventh, temporarily within three points of fourth-placed Leicester ahead of the meeting at the King Power.
Fulham improving but frustrations remain
In this bizarre season, in which perhaps half of the teams in the Premier League have already been in and out of crisis - some more than once, many within the space of a fortnight - it is perhaps Fulham’s trajectory that makes the most sense.
Scott Parker’s men began the season as no-hopers on paper and soon looked it on the pitch, too, but gradually showed signs of improvement, largely in defeat at first, but more recently in a string of positive results, albeit few of them victories.
One had to raise an eyebrow when Parker spoke about sky-high confidence this week - after all, this is still a team that has won just twice all season - but you can see a trust, both in one another and in the system, emerging among his men as the campaign goes on. In the first half, the front three of Ivan Cavaliero, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ademola Lookman pressed as one and with conviction when they smelt vulnerability, showing the kind of drive and zealousness that Robinson would eventually take too far.
But they were also content to sit off and back their centre-halves to deal with any long balls towards Olivier Giroud, arguably the best target man in the division, in a show of faith that would have been unimaginable in the early weeks of the season, when the Cottagers backline was earning Swiss cheese comparisons.
The problem Parker has is that for all their willingness, his side still lack quality in front of goal without Aleksandar Mitrovic fit or in form. The chance which Cavaleiro fluffed on 41 minutes may not have been pivotal moment here, but it was evidence as to why Fulham have been unable to turn any of the five successive draws which preceded this game into victories.
Contrast that with relegation rivals Brighton, who have been in considerably poorer form in recent weeks, but earlier today moved further clear of the drop thanks to Neal Maupay’s clinically-taken goal against Leeds.