Chelsea’s tough 2010-11 academy season continued on Saturday morning with a frustrating 2-0 defeat at home to Fulham.
Despite a hard-working performance in far from ideal circumstances, Dermot Drummy’s young charges were unable to get the upper hand on their opponents and ultimately came up short against a stronger unit.
The team took on a more experienced look than last time out at Cobham against Crystal Palace, with Ben Sampayo returning as captain and Aziz Deen-Conteh getting some much-needed playing time, but there was still schoolboy representation in the form of Alex Davey, Lewis Baker and Adam Nditi.
A quiet start saw both sides have a pot shot at goal from distance, with Fulham’s coming a little closer to catching out Jamal Blackman in the home goal.
It was to prove to be a busy day for the England Under-18 man ahead of joining up with his international colleagues this week.
He stood tall throughout and made a number of top saves to keep the scoreline respectable, and was on hand twice in the first twenty minutes to beat efforts away from set pieces.
When not making saves, his distribution was impressive, launching counter attacks with a powerful throw, whilst remaining on hand to act as a sweeper-keeper with Chelsea’s back four involving him in the recycling of possession whilst Fulham pressed high up the pitch.
Having to build from the back without a focal point in attack has been a problem for the Under-18s since Philipp Prosenik went down injured, but it has encouraged individuals to be surer of touch and more aware of their surroundings whilst trying to adapt their approach.
On this occasion, the aim was to slide balls through the gaps in the Fulham defence for the pacy front three to run onto, but for the first half at least, the ball wasn’t breaking for the blue shirts, despite their best efforts.
After Fulham goalkeeper Jesse Joronen was treated for a head injury sustained in a collision with Nditi, chances came and went at both ends.
The lively Kerim Frei dribbled his way into a shooting position for the Cottagers but saw his low snapshot met by the outstretched arms of Blackman, whilst George Saville had the first real effort from the hosts in heading over from Baker’s corner.
The closer the game drew to the break, the more open it became and as a result, there was more goalmouth incident.
Todd Kane was unlucky to not quite be able to reach a good cross from Nditi, but as was typical of the morning’s action, Fulham created the better chances and missed a gilt-edged one with minutes to go until half time.
Breaking forward with signature pace, Lewis Thomas found himself one on one with Blackman. He showed fine composure in attempting a deft flick over the advancing goalkeeper, but put a little too much height on the ball and watched it come back off the crossbar.
Deen-Conteh was required to clear an effort off the line from an umpteenth Fulham corner to ensure parity after 45 minutes, but there had really only been one team who looked like scoring.
There were no changes in personnel to start the second half, but evident in the team as they restarted was a higher tempo and a willingness to play the direct pass to look for the pace of Devyne, which would in turn help the team play higher up the pitch.
They were fortunate to find Richard Peniket in profligate mood, however. The forward was given a clear opening by a mis-placed pass from Archange Nkumu, but panicked and shot high over the goal.
Drummy waited a mere ten minutes to shuffle his pack, introducing Ismail Seremba for Lewis Baker. Seremba had scored in the previous two matches and went straight up front, with Devyne moving out wide.
Shortly after the hour, however, the (almost) inevitable happened, and in contentious circumstances.
A series of Fulham shots were closed down passionately by some committed Chelsea blocking, but one tackle felled a visiting forward on the follow-through, and a free kick was awarded on the edge of the area.
Saville was clearly incensed at the decision, having to be calmed down by his captain to avoid disciplinary measures, but the decision had presented Fulham with a great opportunity, and one they took.
Frei’s effort was hard and low, and Blackman was unable to hold it. From the ensuing loose ball, Peniket was able to bundle it into the back of the net from a few yards out to give Gary Brazil’s team the lead.
It was a real backbreaker of a goal, as Fulham were now able to sit back and control the game against an opponent they were largely able to keep at arm’s length.
Perhaps encouraged by a swelling group of spectators including Petr Cech and a dozen reserve team players, the Chelsea work rate was commendable, but when they were able to seize possession, they met a disciplined and resistant defence.
Reece Loudon was introduced in relief of a below-par Deen-Conteh, and went forward as Nditi slotted into left back.
He was able to provide something of a physical presence in that area of the pitch as well as an ability to drive the ball across the field quickly, spreading the play and looking for the key to unlock the Fulham team.
Blackman was still making saves at the other end to ensure there was s till a game to chase, and with ten minutes remaining the final substitution saw John Swift leave the Under-16 team he was captaining to replace Anton Rodgers in the Under-18 midfield.
Dubious offside flags denied Kane on two occasions but with time running out it was he who would get the chance they had been searching for.
The defender-cum-midfielder has been in the goals lately and was relentless in his efforts to find one today. In stoppage time he found himself in behind the Fulham defence, but with no other choice but to take the effort on his left side, the shot was easier to save for Joronen, whilst the rebound lacked direction and found the side netting.
Inevitably, with blue shirts pouring forward, the opportunity to counter attack was on the table for Fulham, and five minutes into stoppage time they put the seal on affairs with a comprehensive second goal mere seconds before the final whistle.
The Blues remain a team with just one win this season and a record much poorer than in recent seasons, but once again it must be stressed that particularly for this group of players, results will not come first.
They would be nice, that much is not in doubt, but in the face of adversity a very young team are getting opportunities to impress and learn and grow as footballers, whilst displaying versatility in adopting multiple roles and positions in the same game.
Today, as has been the case for most of the season, there were no poor performances, and indeed, good showings from Davey, Kane and Blackman in particular, but the opposition proved stronger – both literally and figuratively.
Results will come in time – with the desire, effort and development witnessed thus far, they simply have to.
Team: Blackman, Sampayo (c), Davey, Nkumu, Deen-Conteh (Loudon 68), Rodgers (Swift 80), Saville, Kane, Nditi, Baker (Seremba 54), Devyne