Chelsea’s Under-21s bounced back from a defeat in their last outing to inflict a first league defeat of the season on Fulham as they triumphed 2-1 at Motspur Park on Friday night.
An excellent first-half performance saw goals from John Swift and Lewis Baker put Chelsea in the ascendancy but despite their first half excellence, they found it much tougher after the break. Cauley Woodrow’s penalty reduced the arrears and the home team were much improved later in the game, but the Blues held on to a very impressive three points.
An injury-enforced absence for Isaiah Brown meant that Dermot Drummy’s starting eleven almost picked itself, with strength and regular representation in every department. Mitchell Beeney continued to deputise for the injured Jamal Blackman in goal, with Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and captain Nathan Aké in midfield
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was restored to the team after a brief spell as a substitute, and was joined in the midfield area by Baker, with Jeremie Boga ahead of them. Swift started on the right, meaning a rare shift on the left for Alex Kiwomya, and Islam Feruz led the line as the centre forward.
Fulham’s Under-21 squad lacked the likes of Muamer Tankovic and Moussa Dembele through first-team commitments and injuries respectively, but Kit Symons was nonetheless able to name a host of players with some first team experience to their names. Elsad Zverotic, Chris David, Lasse Vigen Christensen and former Chelsea youngster Mesca were all involved from the start, as was Woodrow, who has spent the last three months impressing on loan at League Two’s Southend United.
Speaking before the match, Drummy revealed that the first team’s 1-0 win at Manchester City on Monday evening was the best performance he’d seen since joining the club in 2007, and with that in mind, his players seemed inspired to turn in one of their own best 45-minute displays of the season to date. Lively and sharp from the opening whistle, they pressed and harassed Fulham with intensity and intelligence throughout and reaped the rewards their approach yielded.
An early slide-rule pass from Loftus-Cheek sought Kiwomya’s arrival, and whilst the ball itself was slightly over-hit, the winger’s searing pace saw him threaten goalkeeper Jesse Joronen enough to force the Finnish youth international to scamper out and intervene in a timely fashion. He was then forced into a first save of the evening as Swift cut onto his left foot after making an interception before trying his luck with an effort from long range.
The Blues took a well-deserved lead shortly after the quarter-hour mark and it was the highly influential Swift who delivered once again. Smart approach play down the left allowed Kiwomya to find both time and space to spin a cross low into the goalmouth, and the Under-21s’ leading goalscorer nipped in ahead of his man to tap home an 11th goal of what has been a remarkably productive season for the 18 year-old.
It was the least Chelsea deserved, but Fulham were able to shake off some of their cobwebs in an attempt to respond in kind. David flashed one over from twenty yards out whilst a similar dig from Mesca went the same way via a deflection, but the Cottagers were in general a shadow of the team which for most of this campaign had been in such imperious form.
Swift and Kiwomya linked up once again as the former this time attempted to turn provider with some quick feet and a delivery to the near post, but a block from Jonathan Buatu at the near post prevented the lead from being extended. Feruz was then almost the beneficiary of his own hard work as he successfully blocked a Joronen clearance, but the impact was such that it merely spun away off him rather than bounce back into the net.
Striker Woodrow, an England youth international, had the home team’s best first half moment by some way when he collected David’s clever flick to go clear on goal, but under pressure from Davey, he snatched at it and dragged his shot wide.
Baker put daylight between the two teams just before the break with a wonderful finish to round off a highly positive passage of play. Dabo and Swift worked diligently to prevent Fulham’s Tom Richards from making a comfortable clearance from left-back and not only did they force a throw, they then won it back when the ball was returned to play. Baker received the loose ball and tried to feed Boga, and despite Liam Donnelly’s attempt to intervene, Chelsea’s number six rattled a ferocious left-footed effort into the bottom corner for his own ninth goal of the season.
If Fulham’s half time team talk revolved around starting the second period of play with a greater purpose, the first ten seconds would not have gone down well. Loftus-Cheek powered through the midfield before Josh Pritchard felled him with a trailing leg right on the edge of the box. Baker opted for a deft approach from the dead ball and flicked his effort over the crossbar.
Kiwomya then might have done a lot better with an opening created by Aké, who had been allowed the freedom of the near side of the pitch in which to advance, but Della Verde kept things interesting at the other end with a shot wide of Beeney’s goal from a tight position on the left wing.
They did finally get back into the game just shy of the hour mark when the lively David won a penalty after bamboozling Aké inside the box. Woodrow stepped up to make it 2-1, putting just enough into his strike to beat Beeney, who got a hand to it. As so often happens, the goal saw a spell of dominance as the Whites looked to harness the energy given to them by reducing the deficit, but an injury to David took some of the sting out of the game.
Isak Ssewankambo replaced Loftus-Cheek with twenty minutes to go as Drummy looked to inject some fresh legs and fresher impetus into a midfield which was beginning to become over-run by Fulham, who had already used two of their substitutes in Josh Passley and George Williams.
After Woodrow had volleyed wide from David’s low corner, even more substitutions arrived as both managers tried to find the all-important edge in the final fifteen minutes. Alex Brister replaced Della Verde for the hosts, and for the visitors it was Kiwomya making way for Charly Musonda. The quality of proceedings had taken a very tangible drop the longer the game continued, with tiredness setting in on both sides, meaning that although the likes of Feruz and Swift had chances to break away, they lacked the legs to do so.
Montegrin international Zverotic crashed a low shot just wide which had Beeney scrambling across his goal, and inside the final five minutes Ola Aina replaced Baker in part to try to nullify the increasingly regular threat of Passley on the Fulham right.
David then saw a volley on his weaker foot just about claimed by Beeney in what was the Chelsea man’s first actual save of the evening, before an even better chance landed at the feet of Swift on an incisive breakout led by Musonda. The finish was lacking, but it would ultimately not matter as the young Blues held on to record a mightily impressive victory away from home.
Fulham: Joronen, Donnelly, Pritchard (Passley 54), Buatu, Richards, Zverotic, Christensen (c), David, Della Verde (Brister 75), Mesca (Williams 62), Woodrow
Subs not used: Oberschmidt, Plumain
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Davey, Christensen, Aké (c), Baker (Aina 86), Loftus-Cheek (Ssewankambo 70), Boga, Swift, Kiwomya (Musonda 76), Feruz
Subs not Used: Collins, Conroy