UNDER-21S REPORT: CHELSEA 2 FULHAM 0
John Terry made his long-awaited return from injury for our Under-21s at Cobham, playing the first half for Dermot Drummy's side in a 2-0 win against Fulham.
Terry, who hasn't featured since being stretchered off in the home draw against Liverpool back in November, marshalled the defence impeccably, but perhaps more significantly, came through the opening 45 minutes unscathed, much to the delight of the watching Rafael Benitez.
His ability to read the game has always been one of his biggest strengths, and so it proved on more than one occasion as he nullified the visitors' threat in the first half with a string of smart interceptions, before making way for Alex Davey at the break.
The game itself was slightly tighter than the scoreline suggests, although from an attacking perspective we always looked the more dangerous of the two teams.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Billy Clifford and George Saville all went close in the first half, and we eventually took the lead in the 62nd minute when Islam Feruz raced through to capitalise on a rush of blood to the head by Fulham goalkeeper Jesse Joronen - who was caught in no man's land - and score his sixth goal of the season from long-range.
Shortly after it was 2-0, as Lewis Baker converted a penalty after Milan Lalkovic's cross was handled by Sean Kavanagh just inside the box, and though there were chances at both ends in the closing stages, the result, coupled with Terry's return to action, made it a good night all-round.
Drummy named a strong side for the local derby. As well as the returning Terry, who partnered 16-year-old Andreas Christensen at the heart of the defence, there were also starts for Sam Walker and Lalkovic, who have both recently returned to the club from loan spells at Bristol Rovers and Vitoria Guimaraes respectively. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek made his fourth start for the Under-21s in midfield, while Islam Feruz was given the nod up front.
The opening 10 minutes of the game yielded very little in the way of goalscoring opportunities, with the Blues, in particular, let down by our final ball.
Loftus-Cheek had the first real attempt, and the midfielder was unfortunate to see his low drive from outside the penalty area fizz inches past Joronen's post.
At the other end, the visitors were struggling to get beyond a defence led by Terry, who used his wealth of experience to offer advice and encouragement to the likes of Tika Musonda and Adam Nditi throughout.
Terry sent a trademark header wide after rising to meet a Lewis Baker free-kick, while moments later Lalkovic saw his cross from the right sail harmlessly behind for a goal-kick after working himself into a dangerous position.
The match was being played in the manner of a typical derby, with tackles flying in on both sides. Fulham's Ryan Williams was particularly unhappy with a couple of challenges, although his appeals fell on deaf ears as the referee, to his credit, looked to maintain the flow of the game.
Clifford, who scored a stunning free-kick in our last competitive match against Middlesbrough, went close for the Blues from the edge of the box, while soon after Saville drove just over the bar.
As the half wore on, we were certainly looking the most likely to break the deadlock, although Walker had to be alert to turn a powerful Omri Altman strike behind for a corner as the away side looked to strike on the break.
Terry, as had always been planned, was withdrawn at the break, with Davey coming on at his expense, while in a second switch, Drummy replaced Clifford with Lamisha Musonda.
Musonda could, and probably should, have given us the advantage with virtually his first touch, as he raced clean through on goal, only to be thwarted by a good save by Joronen, who raced off his line to narrow the angle.
Shortly into the second period, we made our third substitution of the evening as John Swift replaced Loftus-Cheek in a straight swap.
Much like the first half, clear-cup opportunities were proving hard to come by, but we finally broke the deadlock just after the hour mark.
As the Blues regained possession following a Fulham corner, Nditi played a long, hopeful ball in behind the Fulham defence. Feruz, as is so often the case, used his blistering pace to pounce on the loose ball, and as Joronen raced off his line, the striker, who was almost 35 yards from goal, calmly rolled his strike into an empty net.
After taking the lead, the Blues began to control the tempo of the game, and nine minutes later we doubled our lead from the penalty spot after the kick had been won by Lalkovic.
Baker was the man entrusted with taking the kick, and the youngster made no mistake, smashing his strike into the bottom left corner of the net as Joronen went the wrong way.
Feruz, always so dangerous in and around the penalty area, almost doubled his tally for the evening moments later, only to see his shot, which looked destined for the bottom corner, saved by Joronen.
Fulham though, refused to cave in, and they were almostback in the game when a wonderful Alex Smith cross from wide on the left had just a little too much paceon it for the advancing attackers.
The two goals in quick succession, however, had swung the game firmly in our favour, and it was a well-earned three points to get the second half of the season off to a positive start.
Drummy was understandably pleased with the result, and felt the inclusion of Terry benefited his team.
'With his experience, John inspires all of the players,' said the manager. 'He leads by example, but the most important thing from the club's point of view is that he looked in good shape.
'The first goal was a bit fortuitous in how it came around, but Lewis took his penalty really well for the second, and I felt he was the big difference in midfield during the second half.'
Chelsea (4-3-3): Sam Walker; Tika Musonda, Andreas Christensen, John Terry (Alex Davey h/t), Adam Nditi; Billy Clifford (Lamisha Musonda h/t), George Saville (c), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (John Swift 54); Milan Lalkovic, Islam Feruz, Lewis Baker.
Unused substitutes: Mitchell Beeney, Alex Kiwomya.
Fulham (4-3-3): Jesse Joronen; Lasse Christensen, Sean Kavanagh, Simon Davies (Richard Peniket 66), Jack Grimmer; Ronny Minkwitz, Josh Pritchard, Alex Smith (c); Ryan Williams, Lauri Dalla Valle, Omri Altman (Dino Islamovic 90).
Unused substitutes: Csaba Somogyi, Chris David, Corey Gameiro.