Wednesday’s afternoon reserve action saw a ding-dong battle at Cobham in the form of a seven-goal London derby thriller.
A hat-trick from Fabio Borini led the way for Chelsea, who edged West Ham 4-3 to continue what has been a fine season at this level. Milan Lalkovic’s late winner left the visitors defeated despite goals from Benni McCarthy, Freddie Sears and Zavon Hines.
The difference in team selection could not have been more marked. The Hammers featured four full internationals and over 1,000 appearances in professional football. The likes of Julien Faubert, Benni McCarthy and Pablo Barrera lent vast experience alongside Thomas Hitzlsperger, returning from a season-long layoff.
Steve Holland included Hilário in goal, with the Portuguese stopper in dire need of playing time, whilst Ryan Bertrand made a rare appearance in the blue of Chelsea, his first action in nearly two months after a hamstring injury.
Josh McEachran played his third game in a week, whilst Borini returned in attack for the first time since November, having undergone shoulder surgery.
It took the Italian hitman just twelve minutes to pick up where he left off. Hitzlsperger’s pass was intercepted by McEachran on the half way line, and the England Under-21 international swiftly advanced into West Ham territory.
He flicked the ball into the path of Borini, and the finish was accurate and instinctive from the edge of the area, beating Marek Stech into the bottom corner.
The goal gave Chelsea a boost, and a side full of attacking ptential began to play with some freedom. Bertrand advanced well down the left whilst Gokhan Tore was his usual creative self.
The Turkish youth international has taken a little time to grow into himself at reserve level but in recent weeks he has looked a more decisive individual who is getting there with his end product, and was causing problems for the West Ham back line.
When the opponents came forward, they played through Hitzlsperger, a talented player who would surely have helped Avram Grant’s team in their battle against the drop this season.
Borini drew a smart save from Stech with a free kick which was hit fiercely and dipped late, and the stop from the young Czech was an important one, as his team equalised shortly after.
An innocuous ball down the flank turned into a great chance when Jacopo Sala – playing at full-back – slipped over, allowing Barrera to approach the Chelsea penalty area. He delivered a lovely cross with the outside of his right foot, and McCarthy was on hand to finish with all of the quality you would expect from a striker with his years in the game.
With the game level on the half hour, there was every chance of both teams playing out the remainder of the first half content with the scoreline, but instead they each sought out an advantage. Tore and Sears both had chances to find the back of the net, but in first half stoppage time it was Sears who grabbed the game’s third goal, albeit in fortuitous circumstances.
Coming inside from the right flank, he hit a shot which was on target but which appeared to be a routine save for Hilário. A deflection off the heels of Bertrand later, however, and the ball had snuck in at the near post.
The lead was barely deserved, but chances were hardly at a premium and there would be plenty of action in the second half. Bertrand made way for Aziz Deen-Conteh at the break, getting a solid 45 minutes of action under his belt, and there was a change at right-back too, with Billy Clifford swapping positions with Sala.
It took just ten minutes for Chelsea to turn the game on its head again. First, a wonderful through ball from Michael Woods gave Borini a chance to take on Jordan Spence. The Hammers captain inexplicably held onto the Italian’s leg having fallen to the ground, and the referee duly pointed to the spot.
Borini’s finish was a cool one, chipping the penalty down the middle with Stech diving away helplessly.
If his second was cheeky, his third was emphatic. The hat-trick was completed two minutes later with a jinking run which finished with a rasping drive into the bottom corner.
It was his tenth goal in five competitive outings at this level this season, and whilst doubts remain over his long-term future at Chelsea, there is absolutely no controversy over his ability to find the net for the reserve team.
He immediately made way for Adam Phillip, with it being his first match action for some time, but the game was still a frenetic affair, as Hines was booked for his appeals for a penalty after Chalobah was accused of handball.
Kaby was Holland’s third and final sub, replacing the impressive Woods for the last quarter of an hour, but despite the fresher legs, Chelsea were unable to prevent another West Ham response.
It came about from some poor defending, as a ball from substitute Ahmed Abdulla took Daniel Pappoe completely out of the game, finding Sears wide on the left.
His cross was missed by Chalobah, and it allowed Hines to take a touch and drill his effort high past Hilário into the roof of the net.
Yet, in a game of back and forths, the momentum swung back in Chelsea’s favour one more, decisive, time.
The clock had ticked into the final ten minutes when McEachran released Lalkovic with a wonderful pass through the Hammers’ back line. The Slovakian pounced on the ball, and as Stech approached, he lifted a deft effort over the advancing stopper and in to make it 4-3.
It was the goal of the game and finished by a young man who is in fine form, scoring four goals in his last four outings.
There was a late rally from Kevin Keen’s side but the Blues held out to record a first win in three games, which stretches back to late November, when West Ham were also the opponents.
Against a team vastly more experienced, the result and performance are one of the more impressive recorded this season, and with regular action to see out the season, there is a good chance of making a run at the national reserve league title.
Team: Hilário, Sala, Pappoe, Chalobah, Bertrand (Deen-Conteh 45), McEachran, Woods (Kaby 72), B.Clifford, Gokhan Tore, Lalkovic, Borini (Phillip 62)
Goals: Borini ’12, ’55 pen, ’58, Lalkovic ’81