Fulham’s Under-21s were knocked out of the U21 Premier League Cup on Thursday night despite a spirited performance against Arsenal at Motspur Park.
In an end-to-end encounter it was Thomas Eisfeld’s 59th-minute strike that proved to be the difference, with Liam Donnelly and Dino Islamovic going close to a late equaliser.
Having made their First Team debuts in the FA Cup with Budweiser last Saturday, Lasse Vigen Christensen and Ange-Freddy Plumain both started for Kit Symons’ side. Moussa Dembélé, another youngster to make his professional bow this term, led the Whites’ attack.
Arsenal manager Steve Gatting named a strong starting XI, with Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ryo Miyaichi and Emmanuel Frimpong - who spent the latter part of last season on loan at Craven Cottage – all included. In fact, eight of the Gunners’ starting 11 had first-team experience.
It was the second visit to our Surrey Training Ground of the season for the Gunners, who played their part in an entertaining, yet goalless draw in September. The side from North London had secured their place in this Round of 16 fixture following a narrow 1-0 win against Norwich City.
Benik Afobe scored the Gunners’ goal in the last round, and the England youth international striker was almost sent clear through by Kris Olsson in the opening minute. Fortunately Josh Pritchard was on hand with a clever intervention.
With both sides emerging with early intent, Dembélé fired over when in a good position following a clever pass from Muamer Tankovic, while Oxlade-Chamberlain chipped wide having broken free from Tom Richards’ close attention at the other end.
Liam Donnelly flashed a delivery from the right across the Gunners’ goalmouth, but with Dembélé and Plumain lurking, Semi Ajayi managed to glance the ball towards relative safety.
Symons’ side saw plenty of possession, with Christensen and Ronny Minkwitz looking to dictate the tempo in the middle of the park. The fast nature of the opening period had slowed by the half-hour mark, as both teams sort a more patient approach.
From one such move Miyaichi almost picked out Afobe, while another intelligent build-up saw the visitors win a free-kick down the left. Oxlade-Chamberlain curled in the delivery, Afobe flicked it on and forced Jesse Joronen into his first real save of the game – making a stunning fingertip save on to the woodwork.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then moved Joronen into another decent stop on 38 minutes, and Fulham replied almost immediately with Tankovic shooting narrowly wide following an inviting lay-off from Dembélé.
The game remained goalless at the break, largely thanks to Ajayi’s brave block to deny Minkwitz a clear strike at goal and Joronen’s bold claim at the feet of Thomas Eisfeld as both sides finished the half in positive fashion.
Good play from Richards and Plumain saw Fulham open the second half strongly. The latter teased in a delivery from the left and the visitors needed Ajayi to make an important intervention.
Plumain then raced away from Jenkinson to meet another pass on the break; the Frenchman did well to cut inside but saw his shot roll wide of the target.
However, it was Arsenal that made the breakthrough on 59 minutes when Kris Olsson’s superb pass found Jon Toral on the left. The Spain youth international’s cross fell to Afobe in the Fulham box. Mananga Jonathan Buatu blocked the striker’s effort but the ball fell into the path of Eisfeld who kept his cool with a finish high into the Whites’ net.
The Gunners went close to a second 10 minutes later, with Jenkinson running into the area from deep. Thankfully for the Whites, the right-back blasted over with an angled drive.
Nico Yennaris did have the ball in the back of the Fulham net, but his curled strike was disallowed as the assistant referee’s flag went up for offside. Jenkinson then moved Joronen into an excellent save following a stinging 20-yard free-kick.
With the game entering the final 10 minutes, Christensen floated in an exquisite first-time centre from the right, but it was Jenkinson that was first to the ball when beating Plumain to the header.
The Whites may have finished the game on top, with Donnelly moving Matt Macey into a smart low save and Islamovic rattling the post with a late effort, but it was the Gunners that held firm to book their place in the last eight of the competition.
Fulham U21s: Joronen, Donnelly, Richards, Minkwitz, Buatu, Pritchard, Della Verde (Islamovic 84), Christensen, Dembélé (Banya 62), Tankovic, Plumain. Subs (not used): Oberschmidt, O’Reilly, Sambou.
Arsenal U21s: Macey, Jenkinson, Yennaris, Frimpong (Kamara 85), Ajayi, Hayden, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Toral 45), Olsson, Afobe, Eisfeld, Miyaichi. Subs (not used): Iliev, Ormonde-Ottewill, Crowley.