For the second season in a row, Chelsea’s Under-18s faced a battling Fulham academy and came out on top in a seven goal thriller. Last year saw a Frank Nouble hat-trick seal a fantastic midweek comeback, whereas this season saw four different goalscorers ensure comebacks from behind twice and seal a win in the season’s most entertaining match to date.
With the Reserves having used some of the youth team in the week, there were changes to the lineup, although Kenny Strickland and Josh McEachran both started again. Aziz Deen-Conteh started his first match of the season at centre-back, replacing Danny Mills. Milan Lalkovic returned in attack, and Billy Clifford took the captain’s armband for the first time. In cold and overcast conditions, it took Fulham less than two minutes to take the lead. Inventive play down the left carved the Blues apart and left Dutch striker Danny Hoesen with a tap-in, Sam Walker looking on helplessly.
The goal, however, wasn’t indicative of the start to the game and Chelsea’s tenacity in midfield and directness going forward was causing problems for the Fulham defenders. Five minutes after the opener, Lalkovic flew down the right wing and delivered a fantastic cross which Mitrovic failed to convert from six yards out, missing contact with the ball. Minutes later it was Lalkovic’s turn to miss, taking a heavy touch when in as the last man, allowing the Fulham goalkeeper to make a challenge. Kaby followed that miss with one of his own, coming onto a loose ball from the edge of the area but looked to place it instead of striking it cleanly, and fluffed the chance.
The equaliser was only a matter of time before arriving and it came in unfortunate circumstances for Fulham’s Michael Kamau. Ben Sampayo went flying down the right wing and delivered a first time cross from the byline, the ball swinging away from goal. As the goalkeeper came to collect it, Kamau clearly thought there was an immediate danger when there was not, and in attempting to intercept at the near post for a corner, he headed it into the roof of his own net. Yet, within two minutes it was 2-1 to Fulham. Chelsea switched off as Fulham played down the right and a high cross hung in the air for big striker Marcello Trotta to rise and head past Walker.
Action was coming thick and fast, and almost instantly Chelsea were level again at the other end in spectacular circumstances. Sampayo and Clifford combined well down the right again and the latter’s cross made its way to the far post, where on a bouncing ball Billy Knott arrived to smash the ball into the roof of the goal, almost taking the net into the next county with it. His whoops of delight in celebration was a clear release of tension for a player who has struggled at left-back in recent weeks, but one who put in a good performance today.
The first half action still wasn’t done though, and Chelsea were able to take the lead five minutes before the break. Fulham lost possession outside their own area and George Saville showed some quickness of feet to beat his man before being felled. The referee played advantage as Lalkovic seized upon hesitancy in the opposing ranks, shifted the ball and drilled low into the bottom corner for the fifth goal of the morning. There was even time for Mitrovic to threaten for another and have a claim for a penalty before a healthy crowd was given a breather as the teams took to the changing rooms.
So often in high scoring first halfs, the second takes some time to get back up to speed, but this wasn’t one of those occasions, as McEachran threatened twice early after the restart. The best of the attempts was a sublime 30 yard free-kick which drew a good save from the Fulham goalkeeper. Still, Fulham came into the game more and looked more athletic in bringing the ball forward, and pressed often. They didn’t have many changes, but when a good one came their way ten minutes into the second period, they took it.
Keanu Marsh-Brown delivered a high free kick from the left wing which looked routine for Walker to take, but it was caught by the wind and sailed over his head, hitting the crossbar. A scramble ensued which saw substitute Aaron Pierre head home – Pierre having come on for Kalau, who suffered a facial injury in the first half. Their second half play had deserved a goal but Chelsea had still been the better team and went looking to restore the lead, McEachran driving wide from distance almost immediately.
It took just seven minutes to restore the lead for the final time, and it was McEachran involved again. A deliciously chipped pass in behind the Fulham defence found Mitrovic, and although his shot was well saved, Clifford was following it in and tapped in for his first goal of the season. With the lead again, Dermott Drummy decided fresher legs were needed, introducing Philipp Prosenik and Bobby Devyne for Lalkovic and the delightful McEachran.
Fulham looked to use the size and strength of Trotta in their approach for another equaliser, but he was more clumsy than useful and was causing no major problems for Deen-Conteh and the ever composed Strickland. Deen-Conteh did take a big fall at one point though, and was duly replaced by Tom Hayden for the closing stages. Danny Hoesen, who remember opened the scoring way back in the second minute, had a glorious chance for his second in splitting the defenders and hitting the target, but Walker superbly tipped the ball away for a corner to keep the lead intact.
The visitors kept coming with Reece Jones orchestrating and Marsh-Brown looking to supply, but there was a distinct lack of a cutting edge and Chelsea were able to hold on for another home win to keep them high in the table, whilst consigning Fulham to remaining at the foot with one win and six defeats in their seven games now. Their record belies their performance, from a young team the battle and resolve they showed was promising for their season ahead. For Chelsea, Sampayo had an excellent game up and down the right, whilst McEachran and Knott (going forward) had good afternoons. Billy Clifford showed an improved use of the ball and Strickland was once again tight at the back, helping Deen-Conteh along in his first start of the season in an unfamiliar position. The positives keep coming, and whilst conceding three isn’t great, the team put in a fine performance overall.
Team: Walker, Sampayo, Strickland, Deen-Conteh (Hayden 80), Saville, B. Clifford (c), Kaby, McEachran (Devyne 60), Lalkovic (Prosenik 60), Mitrovic
Goals: Own Goal ’22, Knott ’25, Lalkovic ’40, Clifford ’58