After the euphoria of a 5-1 win six days ago, Chelsea came back down to earth as their five match unbeaten run was brought to an abrupt halt by local neighbours Fulham, who controlled most of the game and were very much worth their three points.
With a number of players away in Belgium on a visit with satellite club Westerlo, and manager Paul Clement on international duty, Academy Director Neil Bath took control of a young Chelsea team featuring a few schoolboys. Sam Walker kept goal, Frank Nouble started on the left wing, and Under 16 right-back Tom Hayden joined 15 year-olds Jacopo Sala and Andrew Spencer on the subs bench. Jordan Tabor was experimented with in defensive midfield, and Ben Gordon similar on the left wing.
Fulham kicked off and went straight towards their best attacking outlet, Portuguese winger Lino Goncalves. For the opening 20 minutes, the visitors had everything, and were keeping Chelsea penned into their own third, pressing high and causing some very sloppy play from the home team. Striker Lewis Smith cut inside captain Nana Ofori too easily and forced a nice save from Walker at his near post. Shortly afterwards, Ofori was booked for dissent, and he wasn’t to be the only player suffering that fate.
Midway through the half, Fulham took the lead their play deserved. Matt Saunders collected the ball on the edge of the box following a cleared free-kick, and hit a powerful shot low to Walker’s right. The former Millwall player saved well, but centre-back Ashley Thompson simply strolled unchallenged onto the rebound and gleefully tapped the ball home.
The first half was as bad as Chelsea had played all season. There was no flow to their game, the midfield was almost non-existent, and Fabio Borini was struggling to make an impact in the lone striker role against Fulham’s giant defensive pairing of Thompson and Matthew Briggs. With half time came a change, Jacopo Sala came on for Jordan Tabor and Jordan Hibbert moved into the anchor role.
That change was telling, as Chelsea finally began to get their game going, and most of the positive play went through Hibbert. Jacob Mellis, Chelsea’s most dynamic player on the day, was beginning to make things happen, driving on from midfield and getting into advanced positions. Shortly before the hour mark Fulham missed a gilt-edged opportunity to double their lead as Smith headed wide of an open goal after some fine wing play from Goncalves. He was to regret it, as Chelsea went down the other end and equalised.
Hibbert started the move off in midfield, spreading the play wide to Nouble on the right. The big lad sent in a peach of a cross, past Borini, but arriving to Gordon’s foot at the far post. He settled the ball and hit his shot, which deflected off a Fulham foot and in off the post for his first Chelsea goal. The goal, as usual, sparked further confidence from The Blues and a mazy and determined run from Borini almost ended in a goal, but the Italian couldn’t get his shot off after doing so well. Nouble went on a surging run inside from the wing but scuffed his left-footed effort tamely to the goalkeeper.
With time running out, Chelsea looked the most likely to get the winner, but then Fulham pounced and got the winner their first half deserved. Goalkeeper Wesley Foderingham, on as a half-time sub for ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, drop-kicked the ball miles downfield. Jeffrey Bruma mis-judged the length on the ball, it bounced behind him and allowed Smith to steal in and lob the advancing Walker.
To their credit, however, Chelsea almost equalised again. Immediately they went forward as the clock edged towards stoppage time, and again Gordon found himself with the goal gaping. Unfortunately, it was on his weaker right foot, and the attempt was stopped on the goal line. Nouble hit the rebound with his own weaker left foot, and Foderingham turned it behind.
At the death, a frustrated Ofori questioned one decision too many and received a second yellow and his marching orders. The referee was one of the worst to officiate an academy game this season, deeming himself to be the centre of attention amongst the teenagers, and issued four yellow cards for players disagreeing with him.
Chelsea will be disappointed with the result and their performance. Billy-Joe King struggled against Goncalves all game, Tabor was invisible in an unfamiliar role, and Nouble and Borini struggled in the first half, although improved later. Looking positively, Hibbert was excellent at times and showed a real maturity in his advice regarding the referee, and Jack Saville is developing into an excellent defender and leader.
Team: Walker, Ofori ©, Bruma, Saville, King (Hayden 75), Tabor (Sala 45), Hibbert, Mellis, Gordon, Nouble, Borini. Subs Not Used: Haxia, Spencer
Goals: Gordon 62
Sent Off: Ofori