Under-21s: Chelsea 3-4 Fulham

Chelsea’s Premier League International Cup campaign came to an end at the Quarter Final stage on Thursday night after they ended up on the wrong side of a topsy-turvy fixture against West London neighbours Fulham, going down 4-3 at Aldershot’s Electrical Services Stadium.

Moussa Dembele gave the visitors a very early lead but Lewis Baker equalised from the spot, only for Patrick Roberts to restore Fulham’s lead instantly. Jordan Houghton brought his team on terms again before Ali Suljic scored at either end, and at 3-3 a late Adam Taggart winner edged the Cottagers over the line in a rain-soaked Hampshire.

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Adi Viveash fielded a much older and significantly different Under-21 team from the one topping the league for much of the season following Monday’s FA Youth Cup win at Newcastle. Suljic and Kasey Palmer, both substitutes at St James’ Park, were included in a team that also saw Baker and Alex Kiwomya included after returning from recent loan spells.

Mitchell Beeney started in goal with Suljic partnering Dion Conroy at centre-back and Fankaty Dabo and Kevin Wright at full-back; the latter starting once again after a series of long-term injuries. Baker and captain Houghton provided the midfield foundation with Reece Mitchell afforded a central role ahead of them. Palmer and Kiwomya flanked Under-16 forward Iké Ugbo in attack.

Fulham’s team featured their usual fill of experienced players, notably former Schalke defender Tim Hoogland as well as full internationals Liam Donnelly, Jonathan Buatu and Taggart. They were almost behind inside thirty seconds when Kiwomya latched onto Palmer’s pass before drawing a save from goalkeeper Magnus Norman, but instead they were ahead with ninety seconds on the clock.

Smart approach play down the left between the highly-rated Roberts and Jordan Evans saw the latter pull the ball back into the middle, where Dembele – who like Roberts has first team minutes to his name – turned and beat Beeney via a deflection off Suljic.

The French forward might then have doubled his tally when getting away from Suljic but Beeney was this time able to stand up and kick his shot wide. Chelsea’s response was swift though, as Palmer exchanged passes with Mitchell before guiding a shot wide as he struggled to find the right technique in a tight space.

With twelve minutes played, the hosts were level. Ugbo showed intelligence to spin away from Irish defender Noe Baba and then showed his speed in getting into the box before being bundled over by the Fulham man. Baker stepped up and beat Norman from the spot to mark his first goal of the season.

Parity was to last mere seconds however, as the Whites attacked from kickoff and saw Dembele this time send the ball into the middle, where Roberts was able to collect it and rattle an effort past Beeney from roughly the same spot as the first goal had been scored from. They had proven adept at getting into dangerous areas right in front of goal and did so again when a corner wasn’t cleared properly, with Dabo on hand to keep Taggart’s shot out from on the line.

As the half wore on, Chelsea looked the better side though, and increasingly pushed Fulham back towards their own goal. Palmer’s 30-yarder skipped wide of the post before Ugbo had a poke of his own scrambled away after Suljic had won a header from a corner. The young forward then turned provided for Mitchell to chance his arm but, leaning back, the shot cleared the crossbar by some way.

Palmer was proving a constant menace and had a very strong shout for a penalty fall on the referee’s dead ears as Baba appeared to have tripped him on a run into the box, but the second equaliser arrived ten minutes before the break. Wright’s perfectly-weighted ball back to the edge of the box was met by the sweetest of strikers by Houghton, who stroked a sumptuous effort into the very bottom corner.

Palmer threatened twice more before the break with two near-post efforts beaten to safety by Norman, whilst Roberts had a sighter for the visitors that again nicked off Suljic before whizzing the wrong side of the post as far as he was concerned.

Ten minutes into the second half, Chelsea led for the first time. Norman made another good save to keep out a trademark Baker free kick but Conroy was quickest to react and, in much the same way as the first team’s defenders combined for a goal in Paris on Tuesday, his cross was volleyed home by Suljic to make it 3-2.

Finally holding an advantage, they turned the screw somewhat but were unable to extend their lead. Fulham countered by introducing the fresh legs of Tom Richards and Mesca, and quick dividends were paid as they ensured another stalemate within five minutes of manager Peter Grant’s changes. Evans’s wicked cross from the left would surely have been turned home by a white shirt in any event but Suljic turned from hero to villain by slicing a clearance into his own net.

That in turn caused Viveash to make his first alterations of the evening, giving Wright a breather after his first 68 minutes in many a month and resting Palmer at the same time. Ola Aina and Charly Musonda entered in their stead but Fulham continued to enjoy the better of the play. Another Evans cross was headed over by Buatu with Beeney rather floundering, and the Chelsea stopper was then relieved to see the linesman’s flag rule out a smart finish by the dangerous Plumain with fifteen minutes remaining.

The Frenchman followed that by combining well with Mesca in a flowing move that saw the former Chelsea scholar pick out Taggart six yards from goal, but this time Beeney displayed his credentials with a fabulous low save to keep his team in the match. Unfortunately, he was helpless to prevent a fourth Fulham goal with seven minutes left; Hoogland climbing highest to win a far-post header from a corner and Taggart reacted fastest to the knockdown to hook home and put his side 4-3 to the good.

It meant six minutes of desperation from the Blues to rescue their cup hopes; Charlie Wakefield’s pace was brought off the bench and Suljic went up front to join Ugbo. Mitchell won a free kick which Baker delivered with venom, causing Norman no end of problems, but Fulham were able to scramble it clear. A late bombardment into the box was to no avail and although Houghton connected well with a half-volley from distance in the final seconds, Norman dealt with it as he had much of the night to send his team into the last four and send Chelsea home.

Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Suljic, Conroy, Wright (Aina 68), Baker, Kiwomya (Wakefield 85), Houghton (c), Ugbo, Mitchell, Palmer (Musonda 68)
Subs not Used: Granger, Grant, Sammut, Ali

Goals: Baker, Houghton, Suljic
Booked: Houghton

Fulham: Norman, Hoogland, Evans, Donnelly, Buatu, Baba, Roberts (Richards 63), Williams, Taggart, Dembele (Mesca 63), Plumain
Subs not Used: Rodak, Casasola, Della Verde

Goals: Dembele, Roberts, Suljic og, Taggart
Booked: Hoogland, Roberts