A much-changed and much younger Chelsea Reserve team won a hard-fought local derby against West London rivals Fulham on Monday afternoon as goals from Romelu Lukaku, Ismail Seremba and Patrick Bamford secured a 3-2 victory.
Fulham twice responded from behind with strikes courtesy of first-teamers Kerim Frei and Pajtim Kasami but were undone late in the game by Bamford, who won a disputed penalty kick which he converted to mark his competitive debut with a goal.
The former Nottingham Forest frontman was amongst a host of changes made by Dermot Drummy, who was forced into shuffling the pack due to injury, illness, loan moves and Wednesday’s impending FA Youth Cup tie, not to mention first team commitments in Napoli.
Experienced midfield trio Billy Clifford, Conor Clifford and Jacob Mellis were all present but two of the three suffered first half injuries and were forced off, weakening the team even further.
Aziz Deen-Conteh captained a team which featured Under-15 forward Jeremie Boga as well as first-year scholars Seremba and Alex Davey, plus the likes of James Ashton and Nortei Nortey, who have both missed much of the season with long-term knee problems.
Despite the upheaval, the Blues were quickly into their stride and scored less than three minutes into the contest. Conor Clifford’s raking pass released Billy Clifford, and his excellent cross was converted by Lukaku at the far post.
Irishman Clifford was soon to be forced off with a hamstring problem and was replaced by Seremba, who played over an hour for Adie Viveash’s Under-18s at the weekend. It also forced a change in formation, as a 4-3-1-2 shape featuring Boga behind Lukaku and Bamford became something of a 4-2-3-1 with Bamford dropping deeper and leaving the Belgian as a lone forward.
The hosts had the early goal and a quick chance for a second when Bamford linked well with Boga before scuffing his shot, but Fulham would soon come into the game and begin to threaten, with a potent mix of attacking options including prolific forward Marcello Trotta and new signing Ryan Williams from Portsmouth.
Kasami shot wide from the edge of the box, whilst former Chelsea winger Mesca looked to add to his two goals at Cobham in the youth team clash from earlier this season but drew a good save from James Russell, who continues to deputise in goal for the second string.
Russell was rarely extended to his fullest, however, and the closest Fulham came to a goal in the opening half hour was when a strong clearance from defender Dan Burn lobbed towards goal from the halfway line, but the Chelsea ‘keeper did well to keep the ball out.
As the half wore on though, there was a sense of inevitability about things and after Kasami and Williams had both gone close, Frei grabbed a deserved equaliser a minute before half time by converting a free kick he had won after Davey’s innocuous trip on the edge of the box.
Mellis failed to return for the second half having appeared to twist his knee in a collision shortly before the break and was replaced by full-back Nortey, a move which forced Ashton into a more familiar midfield role.
A chance to regroup and refocus benefitted Chelsea and they were to restore their lead before the hour mark with Seremba grabbing his first goal at this level. Deen-Conteh’s excellent cross was flicked goalwards by the head of Bamford and as the ball rebounded off the post, the substitute was on hand to tap home.
Had Trotta’s finishing been up to scratch, Fulham may well have had the lead themselves but he proved ponderous and at times lethargic, allowing defenders to block or Russell to save. The same could be said for team-mate Kasami, but the Swiss Under-21 international would get it right some twenty minutes from time.
Capping a spell of excellent pressure where they deserved a goal, the Cottagers once again restored parity as Russell was beaten from 25 yards as Kasami’s well-struck shot made its way through a cluster of bodies.
Within moments though, Chelsea were back ahead. Bamford went scurrying through the middle and was goalbound before being tripped by full-back Jack Grimmer. The exact location of the foul, and indeed whether there was any contact at all, were amongst the grievances aired by Fulham’s players but the referee awarded a penalty which Bamford just about converted, despite the best efforts of Csaba Somogyi.
Alex Kiwomya made a timely return from injury ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Nottingham, whilst young Boga suffered with severe cramp late on but was able to complete a very tidy 90 minutes. The Frenchman was making his bow at this level at a younger age than any blue in recent memory, including both Nathaniel Chalobah and Josh McEachran and even prodigies past of the likes of Cork and Mancienne.
Fulham launched a final late effort but were unable to threaten Russell, and it was Lukaku who had the chance to seal the deal at the death but tried to break the net with his effort and missed the target wildly.
A draw may have been a fair result on the balance of play but Chelsea’s resolve and spirit ultimately edged things and saw them clinch a very important three points. On a day where the team was filled with young faces and those returning from injury, there were mature performances from an excellent Billy Clifford and from Rohan Ince, whilst Bamford was an effective threat throughout.
Chelsea: Russell, Ashton, Davey, Ince, Deen-Conteh (c), C.Clifford (Seremba 15, Kiwomya 71), Mellis (Nortey 45), B.Clifford, Boga, Lukaku, Bamford
Sub not Used: Bangura
Fulham: Somogyi, Grimmer, Burn, Prichard (Kavanagh 80), A.Smith (c), Harris, Williams, Frei, Kasami, Trotta, Mesca
Subs not Used: G.Smith, Passley, Dalla Valle, Harding
Goals: Lukaku, Seremba, Bamford (CFC); Frei, Kasami (FFC)
Booked: Mellis (CFC); Pritchard, Grimmer (FFC)