A stellar performance from a travelling Benfica side condemned Terry Westley’s young Hammers to defeat in the final game of a Premier League International Cup campaign to forget at Billericay Town’s AGP Arena last night.
The confident visitors staked their claim on the three points in the first period against a very youthful home side indeed, as Alan Junior Martins De Oliveira gave his side a ninth-minute lead.
The Brazilian then doubled the advantage just before the half-hour mark with a looping header, but were never in total control of the game, as our youngsters failed to take their chances at key points in the affair.
Defeat in Essex will see the starlets finish bottom of Group F in their first ever taste of The PLI Cup, meanwhile, The Eagles have now moved level on points with Tottenham Hotspur in second, setting up a winner takes all affair with The Lilywhites in January.
From the start at New Lodge, Westley decided on eight changes as expected to the team that were thrashed 1-5 by Derby County at The London stadium on Friday night.
Coming into the side was back-up keeper Rihards Matrevics, 15-year-olds Will Greenidge and Josh Okotcha, Ben Wells, Bernado Rosa, Anthony Scully, Grady Diangana and the returning Jahmal Hector-Ingram.
They replaced, England U20 star Nathan Trott, Tunji Akinola, Alex Pike, Ben Johnson, Martin Samuelsen, and first-teamers Sead Haksabanovic, Domingos Quina and Antonio Martinez.
Whereas, Helder Cristovao’s starting Xl included some of the brightest young talents that Portugal has to offer, names such as aforementioned danger man Oliveira, Skipper Francisco Ferreira, U19 starlet Mesaque Dju and exiting attacker Filipe Soares.
On a rare European night in Billericay, it would be the hosts who got off to the brighter of starts, full-back Joe Powell going close with a free-kick, but that would soon change.
Just before the ten-minute mark, the away side came forward with Matrevics saving low to deny Oliveira the first time, but the ball coming straight back out to the forward, who then beat the Latvian with an exceptional chipped effort.
There would be just enough time for Powell to go close with yet another set-piece, before Benfica doubled their lead, making the most of their own free-kick opportunity.
A delightful ball lifted in found the head of Alan Junior as the 24-year-old directed it perfectly into Matrevics’ top corner, against the run of play, it has to be said.
After looking solid in the opening exchanges, the debutant Greenidge was replaced by Akinola in the aftermath of going down injured, disappointingly for him.
The bright young Hammers would continue to create after that, with Dan Kemp and Hector-Ingram looking active in the attacking department, but the Portuguese would remain two to the good at the break, albeit with a little help from lady luck.
However, the story would be different in the second period with The Reds dictating the play and starting the half by going close through Oliveira yet again, in addition to Marcelo Hermes volleying wide of the target.
Although Westley’s boys did look a threat on the break, they never really troubled Russian Ivan Zlobin between the sticks for Benfica, with his side creating the better chances at the other end.
And after Oliveira had squandered several opportunities to round off the tie with his hat-trick, The Referee blew the final whistle on a night where Youth made its impression in Essex.
So, with the Claret & Blue starlets ended their first PLI Cup with a third defeat from three, can they improve when getting back to Premier League Two action on Friday night? With a trip to face Arsenal away from home on the menu.
Meanwhile, The Eagles will travel back home with their heads held high and take plenty of confidence in their next LigaPro outing, a Sunday lunchtime tie with Leixoes SC.