Chelsea suffered just a second domestic Under-18 league defeat of the 2012-13 season on Saturday, and it came at the hands of the only previous team to take all three points from them this campaign.
However, whilst league leaders Fulham edged a narrow 2-1 victory at Motspur Park six days before Christmas, they were rampant on a cold and snowy late February morning in the third meeting of the teams this year, running out 5-0 victors.
Adi Viveash made a full eleven changes from the team Dermot Drummy sent out to beat Barcelona in the NextGen Series on Wednesday, meaning a start for Ben Killip in goal behind a back four of Fankaty Dabo, Jonathan Muleba, Dion Conroy and Kevin Wright. Ruben Loftus-Cheek captained the team in a midfield also featuring Isak Ssewankambo and new England Under-18 call-up Jesse Starkey, whilst Tom Howard and Reece Mitchell flanked Chike Kandi in attack.
Fulham, who went into the game with 100% record in the Elite Group phase, featured a formidable attacking foursome of Moussa Dembele, Muamer Tankovic, George Williams and Patrick Roberts and they would prove to be utterly decisive, accounting for all five of the goals and causing havoc from the very first minute. Indeed, former MK Dons man Williams could have had the ball in the back of the net within seconds of kickoff but for a timely block in the Chelsea ranks, but the tone had firmly been set for what was to come.
The lively Roberts gave an early indication of what he was all about as he charged off on a run from the right, forcing Wright and Conroy onto the back foot, before curling just wide with his apparently weaker left foot. Still, Chelsea had openings of their own in a back-and-forth first twenty minutes, with Loftus-Cheek curling a shot straight at goalkeeper Max Oberschmidt and Howard whipping one goalwards after a short corner but missing the target by inches.
Swedish forward Tankovic, who has so regularly caused Chelsea problems at this age group in recent years, had a goal disallowed midway through the first half after wrestling Muleba to the floor to get the ball, whilst at the other end Starkey had a chance to exercise his set piece mastery from a fine position on the edge of the box, but Oberschmidt was once again equal to the task.
As the half wore on it was Fulham who moved into the ascendancy in search of a goal, and they forced Chelsea back into their own half for long spells. Williams’ fiercely-struck free kick whizzed towards the near post where lanky defender Stephen Arthurworrey made a connection, but Killip did well to push the ball onto the post and away for a corner.
The visitors worked German stopper Oberschmidt into the half’s best save moments later when Loftus-Cheek and Howard combined to fashion a lovely opening for Wright, who struck the shot well from a wide angle but couldn’t quite beat the Fulham number one. Instead, the hosts took the lead with just under ten minutes remaining in the half when Tankovic was in the right place at the right time to almost stumble the ball over the line following a shot from Roberts which had rattled the crossbar.
One nearly became two when Dembele hooked a left-footed shot towards goal but struck the base of the far post to mark the third time in the game that Fulham had been denied by the woodwork, but they didn’t have to wait long to double their advantage. It came courtesy of an unfortunate hiccup by Killip, who sent a pass invitingly into the feet of Tankovic on the edge of the box. He gleefully accepted the gift to score his second of the game and 12th of the league season to secure a 2-0 scoreline at the break.
A swift half-time interval outside in the harsh conditions gave way to a quick restart of the action and to their credit Chelsea started with a bit more purpose and urgency about their play. They won a corner which Conroy ended up knocking down to the awaiting Kandi, but his goalbound shot was well blocked and cleared to safety.
If they had been able to reduce the deficit, they might have been able to make a game of it, but some Roberts-inspired brilliance saw Fulham notch the game’s third goal and end the match as a contest. The England Under-16 international waltzed down the right wing beating three or four blue shirts before picking out Williams at the far post, who did the rest for 3-0.
Viveash introduced George Cole and Ambrose Gnahore for some much needed playing time after recent injuries and both were quickly into the action looking to make an impact, but like their colleagues their end product was lacking on a frustrating morning. Cole chanced his arm from long range but was wayward in his execution whilst Gnahore found space on the right on a number of occasions but had a lack of options when advancing and cutting inside onto his favoured right foot.
Dembele missed a free header in his search for a goal of his own but would get his wish with twenty minutes or so left on the clock. Killip had earlier saved well from American midfielder Emmerson Hyndman after wonderful approach play from Tankovic but could do nothing to deny the French forward, who finished a move similar to the one Williams had scored from earlier in the second half.
The goal signalled changes for the hosts, who rested the ever-effective Tankovic as well as taking the curious decision to make a change in goal, whilst Viveash gave more Under-18 playing time to young schoolboy Dominic Solanke.
Substitute goalkeeper Billy Granger had little to do in his fifteen minutes on the pitch as Ssewankambo had a shot blocked and Loftus-Cheek screwed a shot wretchedly wide, but it was only fair that the dynamic Roberts would have the last word for Fulham as he capped a five-star outing both personally and as a team by poking home on the line after Dembele had been denied from close range.
The result marks Chelsea’s heaviest defeat at this level since losing 5-1 on the same pitch a little over three years ago, and a first five-goal loss since being turned over by Tottenham in March of 2009. The performance lacked in several key elements and whilst they may have escaped a hiding on other days, Fulham took their chances and made them pay. As always, however, there are lessons to be learned in defeat and the young Blues will be keen to make amends as soon as possible, with their first opportunity to do so coming next Saturday at home to Southampton.
Fulham: Oberschmidt (Granger), Donnelly, Arthurworrey, O’Reilly, Richards, Sambou, Hyndman, Tankovic (Evans), Roberts, Williams, Dembele
Subs not Used: Burgess, Sheckleford
Chelsea: Killip, Dabo, Muleba, Conroy, Wright, Ssewankambo, Loftus-Cheek (c), Mitchell, Starkey (Gnahore), Howard (Solanke), Kandi (Cole)
Subs not Used: Beeney
Goals: Tankovic x2, Williams, Dembele, Roberts