Fulham’s U18s went out of the FA Youth Cup after being beaten by Aston Villa on penalties at the end of an enthralling contest on a chilly night at Craven Cottage.

The defeat will have been a horrible way for Gary Brazil’s side to end their finest run in the competition, especially as progress to a semi-final against Newcastle was within their grasp as the game entered the final minute of extra time. Fulham, leading 2-1 with time ticking down thanks to a pair of outstanding finishes from the impressive Italian youth international Marcello Trotta, were less than a minute away from taking a sizeable scalp when some nervous defending allowed Devine to fire Villa into a penalty shoot-out from close range.

You felt that might prove to be a difficult pyschological barrier to overcome and so it proved. In a horribly compelling penalty shoot-out, Fulham managed to convert just one of their four penalties and despite one great save from the excellent Marcus Betinelli were left agonisingly short of a place in the last four.

Villa went through, and considering their recent pedigree in youth football, that’s not a huge surprise. But Fulham gave them a real run for their money. Some tentative early exchanges saw both sides struggle to get a grip on proceedings, with Fulham’s first chance coming courtesy of a flowing move down the right. Christian Marquez-Sanchez, the eye-catching Spaniard we’ve mentioned before, and Keanu Marsh-Brown (who I’ve already raved about) linked nicely down that flank and the former Arsenal man burst into the box having exchanged passes with Richard Peniket only to be denied by a brilliant block from Calum Barratt. From the ensuing corner, Cheick Toure headed over the bar from six yards out.

Villa looked lively in spells with their tall and intelligent centre forward Kofi Poyser looking a real menace. They were restricted largely to long range shots which Betinelli handled well, although Poyser did very well to nod dangerously towards the Fulham goal from 15 yards. The home side continued to threaten, with Barratt having to sprint out to the edge of his area to thwart a Trotta burst.

Inevitably, the Italian was at the heart of Fulham’s opener which also owed much to a mazy dribble from Marsh-Brown. The chance appeared to have gone when Ellis Deeney got a foot to thwart Trotta’s forward momentum, but the striker had the presence of mind to readjust to the position of the loose ball and beat Barratt with a fine finish from the right side of the box.

The visitors immediately played with more purpose in the second period. Richard Blythe tested Betinelli’s reactions with a header and then the young goalkeeper did brilliantly to prevent Poysner from levelling mattters with an instinctive block. Having seemed to have recovered their composure, it was disappointing to see Fulham concede a rather sloppy goal.

Reece Jones laboured on the ball down on the left touchline and was robbed by the hard-working Ryan Simmonds. The Villa captain’s run and low cross left Poyser with the simplest of tasks to touch in the equaliser from close range. Villa then began to pass the ball with real confidence, although chances came for both sides  in a gripping last quarter of an hour. A lovely turn saw the former Manchester City man fashion a chance for himself almost of nothing but Barrett did well to save. A superb sliding challenge from Daniel Devine denied Peniket a run on goal, but Pierre was similarly well positioned to block Arseinho Halfhuid’s late header.

Extra time was engrossing even if the supporters congregated in the Johnny Haynes Stand were now starting to feel the cold. Halfhuid outfoxed Toure just with a clever bit of footwork and drew a terrific save from Betinelli, whilst Sam Williams timed his intervention perfectly to prevent Trotta from reaching an inviting through ball from substitute Kerim Frei. Trotta did score again shortly afterwards and this strike was even better than the one that had given Fulham their first lead, as he lashed home off his left foot with real power from an almost implausible angle.

Trotta had the chance to seal it with four minutes to play bursting onto a fine through ball from Paudie Quinn but he was denied by a brilliant reflex save from Barett. That miss was to prove costly, although it seems harsh to blame Trotta on a night when he looked outstanding and especially as the referee appeared to miss a clear foul on Peniket before awarding a free kick to Villa. Tempers flared and Fulham never really regained their composure. Barrett launched it hopefully forward, Poyser climbed and there was Devine to prompt the penalty heartache.

Fulham’s penalties were nervous and there was no repeat of the heroics that took them past Bolton in the last round. Substitute Josh Pritchard and Peniket saw their efforts saved and Marsh-Brown sent his into the Putney End handing the momentum back to Villa after Betinelli had briefly revived interest in the shoot-out with a fine save from Carruthers. The shoot-out defeat was a horrible way to end a terrific run and Brazil’s boys can be proud of their energy and endeavour.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Bettinelli; Marquez-Sanchez (Frei 63), Kamau, Pierre,  Touré; Marsh-Brown, Harris, Jones (Quinn 80), Smith (Pritchard 99); Trotta, Peniket. Subs (not used): Fry, Maloney.

BOOKED: Harris, Pritchard.

GOALS: Trotta (39, 115).