It might have been 63 days since Chelsea took to academy league action at Cobham but it was worth the wait. An accident with the West Ham team bus meant the wait was 45 minutes longer, but they played their part in an end-to-end thriller edged by Chelsea by a 4-3 scoreline, largely due to a first-half hat-trick from in-form prolific striker Marko Mitrovic.
With just five days to go until the FA Youth Cup Fifth Round tie at home to Portsmouth, Dermot Drummy followed the club’s usual behaviour in the preceding league fixture by selecting the eleven likely to start in midweek. With Jeffrey Bruma suffering from a slight hamstring problem, Aziz Deen-Conteh has moved inside to centre-back with Billy Knott at left-back, whilst Kaby has played himself into the starting place in midfield. Milan Lalkovic was the only starter who is not 100% certain to start at Stamford Bridge on Thursday with Jacopo Sala the favourite to play, but the Slovakian was joined by Gokhan Tore and Marko Mitrovic in attack today.
The visitors arrived fresh off the back of their own victory in the Youth Cup and as a result were on tired legs, choosing to use some younger players. A very attacking lineup saw schoolboy forwards Blair Turgott and Dominic Vose flank England Under-17 hotshot Robert Hall (and fellow schoolboy) and Colombian Cristian Montano.
After an abbreviated visiting warm-up the action got underway with a little slower tempo than usually witnessed on a Saturday morning, but Chelsea were keen to get going and had a sight of goal inside five minutes. Conor Clifford, in a rich vein of form, looked to make an impact from long range once again but didn’t quite get hold of his effort and it skidded off the turf and comfortably wide of the goal. It wasn’t long before the Blues did take the lead though, and it came in stunning fashion after eleven minutes. Play was broken up on the edge of their own area and after some neat interchange between Kaby and Gokhan Tore, the Turkish Under-21 international carried the ball forward. He played a slide-rule ball to the overlapping Josh McEachran down the inside left, and although he could have easily taken a shot himself, his composure allowed him to put a perfect ball across the box for Mitrovic to crash home at the far post. It was a wonderful, flowing move and one of the contenders for the club’s goal of the season.
The goal opened the game up, and chances came thick and fast at either end. Sam Walker immediately made a good sprawling save to deny Vose before Turgott tested the giant stopper with an effort he will have wanted to do much better on. After beating his man on the edge of the area the schoolboy had the goal at his mercy but put his effort too close to Walker. At the other end, Daniel Mills Pappoe saw his close-range header deflected wide, with the visitors making the better of the play. Duly, they got the equaliser they probably deserved on the half hour mark when centre-back Callum McNaughton rose highest to head home a corner. Walker had initially decided to come for the cross but changed his mind and in his hesitancy lost position, and paid by conceding.
He was let off the hook somewhat though, as Chelsea went right down the other end and restored the lead. A corner was earned in dubious fashion with the Hammers claiming a foul in the build-up, but Gokhan Tore struck the corner into a dangerous area and Mitrovic arched his body to send an agile yet powerful header into the far corner of the net, beating the man on the line. Finally consistently fit and in confident form, the Swede has always shown an ability in front of goal and is in the richest vein of scoring form in his club career to date. He wasn’t done yet either, and after Gokhan had wasted a glorious chance when through on goal and Turgott sliced wide on the run, Mitrovic had his hat-trick.
With the clock showing first-half stoppage time, play had largely been winding down, but Chelsea broke with an eye on one last attack. Kaby carried the ball forward with intent and flicked it into the path of Mitrovic, who held his man off and struck a shot at goal. It took a deflection, wrong-footing goalkeeper Sam Cowler and finding the bottom corner. It was his 12th goal of the season, his fifth in a week and the fifth game in seven in which he had netted. It gave Drummy’s boys a 3-1 half time lead, and breathing room with which to work.
Less than two minutes into the second half, the game looked to be dead and buried. An innocuous enough build-up down the left saw a cross to the far post evade everyone, but not Lalkovic, who stooped to head past Cowler from close range and appear to seal the three points. Conor Clifford went off to rest, handing the captaincy to Kaby and making way for Anton Rodgers, and with West Ham heads dropping, both Knott and Gokhan had chances to extend the lead further. As they spurned them, Billy Clifford picked up a slight knock and was withdrawn as a precaution, Ben Sampayo his replacement.
Midway through the second half, Hammers coach Tony Carr brought on another striker in the form of burly Daniel Subuola, leaving five strikers on the pitch, and went all-out to get back in the game. Minutes later, Sampayo was involved in a collision with Montano out on the left wing to hand the visitors a free kick. Vose delivered into a dangerous area and Montano was part of a crowd which the ball hit and found its way into the back of the net. Two minutes later, the same combination brought about another goal, reducing the deficit to 4-3, as the Colombian headed home emphatically as Chelsea’s set piece marking broke down. Perhaps there’s an epidemic at the club…
They were sensing blood and were pouring forwards to get the levelling goal, but Kaby kept them on their toes with a fierce drive that had Cowler beaten, but not the frame of the goal as it struck the post. Subuola bundled his way through at the other end and hit a shot which took a nick off a Chelsea leg and squirmed away from Walker but inches wide of the post. Chelsea weren’t defending particularly badly – indeed, West Ham were struggling to make a real impact from open play – but the sheer numbers pouring forwards and the prospect of any set piece had Drummy’s team on the ropes.
Lalkovic had put in a fine shift defensively on the right and was on hand to mop up when Walker inexplicably threw the ball straight to Vose late on, but the Under-19 winger had to come off in the closing stages with a knock. Bobby Devyne came on and had a chance to put the game beyond doubt, but in a carbon copy of Vose’s early effort, it was well saved away to the goalkeeper’s right. Gokhan could not be afforded the same sympathy a minute later though, as he had time and space following Rodgers’ pass, but found the side net when it was almost easier to score.
The Blues eventually held on and could breathe as the final whistle handed them a 4-3 win and another home win, with only Crystal Palace taking anything from Cobham this season. For the second game in succession an attack-biased team had netted four and looked tidy defensively, but the set piece worries must be addressed. Outstanding performers on the day include Aziz Deen-Conteh, who had a very impressive game alongside the commanding Mills Pappoe in defence, and Billy Knott, who was in good form at both ends of the pitch. Josh McEachran showed a developing strength and composure in midfield, using the ball well, and Mitrovic put his chances away very well. After some poor form to close out 2009, the new year has started in much brighter fashion for the academy.
Team: Walker, B.Clifford (Sampayo 65), Mills Pappoe, Deen-Conteh, Knott, C.Clifford (c) (Rodgers 45), Kaby, McEachran, Gokhan Tore, Lalkovic (Devyne 86), Mitrovic
Goals: Mitrovic 11, 32, 45, Lalkovic 46