UNDER-21S REPORT: FULHAM 1 CHELSEA 2
A spirited performance from Dermot Drummy's side at Motspur Park earned three league points and inflicted a first league defeat of the season on leaders Fulham.
First-half goals from John Swift (pictured) and Lewis Baker gave the visitors the advantage at the interval, before Cauley Woodrow converted a penalty beyond Mitchell Beeney after the restart, after Nathan Ake was adjudged to have tripped Chris David. However, the young Blues defended resolutely and held on to claim the victory.
Drummy made one change from the side that were beaten after extra-time in the last 16 of the Under-21 Premier League Cup last week, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek starting in place of Izzy Brown. That meant John Swift was deployed out wide, supporting Islam Feruz up front along with Alex Kiwomya from the opposite flank.
Mitchell Beeney kept his place in goal, protected by a back four consisting of Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and skipper Nathan Ake. Lewis Baker and Jeremie Boga joined Loftus-Cheek to make up the central midfield trio.
There was a scare for the visitors inside the opening few minutes as a short back pass from the right caused confusion between Christensen and Beeney, although the Danish defender reacted quickly enough to clear the danger before it could cause serious problems.
Down the other end, Kiwomya was giving Liam Donnelly a headache down the Chelsea left flank, stretching his legs to get away from the full-back and bear down on goal as he chased a long ball over the top, though goalkeeper Jesse Joronen reacted quickly and raced off his line to intervene.
The first real chance of the game went to the visitors as Swift cut inside from the right wing and fired a low left-footed effort towards goal, though Joronen gathered comfortably as an even opening quarter of an hour played out at Motspur Park.
Both sides were enjoying alternating spells of possession, though neither could find an incisive touch or pass to break through defence. However, the deadlock was broken inside 20 minutes as Kiwomya's pace once again forged the opportunity.
Baker spread the play to the wideman as Chelsea broke quickly out of defence and Kiwomya scampered away from his challengers and supplied a dangerous centre into the box. His delivery was low and into an inviting area for the onrushing Swift to finish beyond Joronen for his 11th goal of the season.
Chelsea continued to assert their authority on the game after the opener, largely controlling possession in the midfield areas, with Christensen alert to snuff out any incoming danger to the Blues goal. Bangna fired a deflected shot from just outside the box narrowly over Beeney's bar, though it was the visitors who continued to threaten.
Quick feet and smart thinking from Swift down the right fashioned a chance for Kiwomya, though the winger couldn't quite adjust his feet at the front post and the chance was snuffed out, before Cauley Woodrow had a sight of goal after the hosts' brightest move of the game. The striker's low effort was skewed comfortably beyond the far post.
A few minutes later and the Blues had doubled the lead, this time through Baker. The midfielder advanced towards goal from a central area before thumping a left-footed strike beyond the despairing dive of Joronen and into the corner from the edge of the box.
Chelsea's No.6 quickly found himself in the referee's notebook for a late challenge in the middle of the field, as Drummy's side went in at the break with a two-goal cushion.
The game restarted in blistering fashion and the officials had a big call to make just seconds into the second period. Loftus-Cheek burst forward from midfield and was tripped as he moved into the box, though the referee adjudged the foul had occurred right on the edge rather than inside the penalty area, much to Drummy's annoyance.
Baker sized up the resultant set-piece, though he bent a left-footed curling effort over the bar, before a nice Fulham move involving Lasse Christensen and David fashioned an opening for Lyle Della Verde, who could only strike the wrong side of the near post.
Yet Fulham were back in the game several minutes later and it was courtesy of another penalty call from the referee. This time he did point the spot, after Ake appeared to trip David, and Woodrow stepped up to fire into the bottom left corner from 12 yards.
That ignited the spark in the hosts' game and Drummy's side knew then that they would be in for a remaining half hour of hard work. Boga shot high over the bar before a spell of fiercely contested midfield battles ensued.
Chelsea were attempting to regain a foothold in the game, after surrendering the initiative, and Swift, Baker, Loftus-Cheek and Boga were working hard to keep hold of the ball in midfield areas, with Feruz working tirelessly up front to close down defenders.
David fired a dangerous-looking free kick into the wall, while Woodrow connected with the resultant corner with a clever half-volley, though the striker's attempt went narrowly wide. Substitute George Williams and Christensen then had shots well blocked as the young Blues' defence stood firm in the face of increasing pressure.
As the match moved into the final few minutes, Elsad Zverotic fizzed a low effort again just wide of Beeney's upright, before the goalkeeper confidently gathered a rasping high strike from David. Swift could have wrapped up the points down the other end, firing into the side netting from a tight angle as Chelsea broke with numbers, however it was to have little impact as his side held on for three away league points.
Drummy was naturally pleased with a gutsy display against the league leaders and praised his side's ability to bounce back from a disappointing Under-21 Cup exit at the hands of Arsenal last week.
Speaking to the official Chelsea website after the game, he said: 'Fulham produced a very good performance in the second half. We don't often have situations where we have to defend to the hilt but sometimes you've got to go away from home and do that.'
'We should have beaten Arsenal last week so we were all disappointed with that defeat, but to come back and win against a team previously unbeaten all season is a great achievement. I thought Ruben should have had a penalty early in the second half so that was a frustrating decision as it looked like the foul was right on the line to me. The character of the boys to block, defend and restrict them to probably three chances all game was fantastic.'
The manager was delighted with a battling team performance, though singled out a few midfield men for special praise.
'Ruben did fantastic for an hour or so and Lewis Baker put in a mature performance in midfield, keeping the ball moving for us really well. Swift has obviously done some work with Frank Lampard, talking to him about arriving late into the box and finishing chances and that's really paying off.
'He had to double up in the second half as they pushed their full-backs on and that's obviously a part of his job if they're hitting those long balls forward and we're not stopping them at source. Eden Hazard was doing exactly the same the other week so if Eden Hazard can do it, then John Swift can do it too.
'Fulham are a very good side and Kit Symons [Fulham's Under-21 manager] is a great coach so it's nice to pit my wits against him and come away with three points.'
Chelsea Mitchell Beeney; Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen, Nathan Ake (c); Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Isak Ssewankambo 71), Lewis Baker (Ola Aina 86), Jeremie Boga; John Swift, Alex Kiwomya (Charly Musonda 75), Islam Feruz.
Unused subs Bradley Collins, Ola Aina, Dion Conroy,
Scorers Swift 19, Baker 37
Fulham Jesse Joronen; Liam Donnelly, Tom Richards, Joshua Pritchard (Joshua Passley 55), Mananga Jonathan Buatu, Elsad Zverotic, Buomesca Tue Na Bangna (George Williams 63), Lasse Vigen Christensen (c), Cauley Woodrow, Lyle Della Verde (Alex Brister 75), Chris David
Unused subs Max Oberschmidt, Ange-Freddy Plumain.
Scorer Woodrow (pen) 55
Booked Della Verde
By Sam Poplett.