Chelsea’s second trip to Craven Cottage in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League this season went much the same way as their first as Dermot Drummy’s youngsters lost to a solitary Lasse Christensen goal.
The win was thoroughly deserved however and the margin of victory could easily have been greater but for a combination of the hosts’ profligacy and misfortune as they struck the woodwork three times in the second half. The Blues’ defeat was marred in the closing stages by a red card to influential midfielder Lewis Baker.
Drummy’s team almost picked itself with George Saville the latest of his squad to depart on loan this week. With the combative midfielder now at Millwall, Ruben Loftus-Cheek came into the side as one of three changes from the eleven which beat Barcelona in the NextGen Series;Jamal Blackman returned in goal to replace Mitchell Beeney and Connor Hunte dropped out for Milan Lalkovic in the other two switches.
Fulham included their usual smattering of experience with Cameroonian international Eyong Enoh anchoring the side and Welsh veteran Simon Davies alongside him in midfield but their youngsters have been exceptionally impressive this season and they started like a house on fire, pressing relentlessly and forcing mistakes in the Chelsea ranks.
Their first chance fell to the feet of striker Cauley Woodrow, who has progressed from being the leading scorer in their Under-18 ranks to leading the line under Kit Symons at the next stage up. He found a yard of space on the edge of the six yard box to meet Kerim Frei’s cut-back, but volleyed just wide of Blackman’s left post.
Blackman and his defence had one or two hairy moments in the opening quarter of an hour with misplaced or under-hit passes amongst themselves but they weren’t made to pay for any of their sloppiness and began to play their game. Islam Feruz drew home goalkeeper Jesse Joronen into his first save some ten minutes into the game but the shot from distance barely threatened the Finnish custodian.
A soft free kick then allowed an opportunity for home captain Adam Smith to try his luck from the edge of the area but Blackman displayed sharpness of mind and of body in turning it away for a corner. The skipper then went in rather crudely on schoolboy Jeremie Boga but was adjudged to have won the ball and play duly continued despite the protests of those in blue shirts.
Woodrow was proving to be a handful for Alex Davey and Andreas Christensen at the back but it wasn’t his best night in front of goal. His best chance beat Blackman but not Adam Nditi covering on the line, and moments later he spurned a total gift when presented with the ball twelve yards out, shooting well wide.
Nditi’s knack for being in the right place at the right time saw him grow in confidence as the game went on and he was easily the most impressive Chelsea performer on the night, covering ground with ease and affecting the game in all phases of play. It was his cross which gave Todd Kane their best chance of the first half but the visiting captain thundered his shot high into the vast emptiness of the Hammersmith End.
Kane would have another sight of goal on his weaker left foot before the break but was still no closer with a more cultured effort, and the two sides were to retreat to their changing rooms level at 0-0 despite the home team having enjoyed much the better of the game.
That trend would continue almost from the restart when the lively Frei, returning from injury, slipped in Davies but his veteran team-mate dragged his shot horribly wide despite being well-placed.
Changes followed from both sides with Fulham introducing Chris David for their captain Smith whilst Drummy sent on Reece Mitchell in place of Feruz, who had cut a frustrated and lonely figure up against Fulham’s gigantic Stephen Arthurworrey and the excellent Jack Grimmer, whilst in between stoppages Boga came alive long enough to skip past two or three opponents only to underwhelm with his tame finish which was straight at Joronen.
Nditi’s forays forward continued to look like being the most likely source of a goal for Chelsea but his right-footed curler was slightly off target and instead of going ahead, the Blues were finally trailing just before the hour. A loose pass from the back was pounced upon by midfielder Christensen (Fulham’s Lasse, not Chelsea’s Andreas), and the Dane exchanged passes with Davies before finishing in clinical fashion.
The ineffective Alex Kiwomya was replaced by Aziz Deen-Conteh, making a welcome return from injury, in a move which saw Nditi pushed into attack, but it was all Fulham in the wake of the goal and they were rampant in search of further success. Right-back Josh Passley hit the post after a rapid counter-attack following a Chelsea corner, then Blackman was superb in denying Frei with the Blues at sixes and sevens in defence.
Passley would again be denied in his quest for a rare goal when Blackman got down well to keep out his guided effort, and when the teenage goalkeeper was beaten for the second time by Christensen, the woodwork came to his aid once more, with the crossbar his friend on this occasion.
More changes ensued as Fulham gave time to Omri Altman and former Chelsea academy youngster Mesca, who was making his first appearance of an injury-hit campaign. Drummy’s final roll of the dice was to introduce Dion Conroy for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and push (Andreas) Christensen into midfield. There was a clear and evident increase in Chelsea’s intensity in the closing stages, but it would have an unfortunate outcome.
Kane was the first to have his name taken by the referee, who had seen enough fouls from the full-back on the night to issue a yellow card. Lalkovic followed for a late kick at Sean Kavanagh, which combined with some dissent drew the ire of the man in black. Worse was to come though as Baker jumped in from behind on substitute David in a reckless and unnecessary lunge which was punished with the red card it probably deserved.
Enoh hit the post in stoppage time as Fulham continued to fight the frame of the goal and despite some late attempted heroics from Nditi, Fulham ran out deserved winners. In seven meetings at Under-18 and Under-21 levels this season between the two West London rivals, the home side has come out on top on every occasion, and this result was rarely in doubt.
Fulham: Joronen, Passley, Arthurworrey, Grimmer, Kavanagh, Enoh, Davies (Altman 63), Christensen, Smith (c) (David 48), Frei (Mesca 65), Woodrow
Subs not Used: Grainger, Minkwitz
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane (c), Davey, Christensen, Nditi, Loftus-Cheek (Conroy 71), Baker, Boga, Kiwomya (Deen-Conteh 57), Lalkovic, Feruz (Mitchell 54)
Subs not Used: Beeney, Pappoe
Goals: L.Christensen 56 (Fulham)
Booked: Kane, Lalkovic (Chelsea)
Sent Off: Baker (Chelsea)