Chelsea’s Under-21s continued their fine run of form with a 2-0 win over Norwich City at Aldershot’s Electrical Services Stadium on Friday night as a Josh McEachran brace saw them home comfortable victors.
A match played in horrible conditions with rain falling throughout took some time to get going but the Blues remained patient and confident and were rewarded with two goals in ten second half minutes from a player who will have been wanting to catch the eye ahead of a likely loan departure.
(view Dan Davies’ excellent match gallery HERE)
Dermot Drummy, who spent the international break coaching Jose Mourinho’s group of players, was able to call upon the services of McEachran and Billy Clifford, who are both still with the club having failed to secure loan moves at the transfer deadline. They were joined in midfield by Lewis Baker, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek the player to make way in a group of players who have been rotated often this season so far.
John Swift joined Isaiah Brown in flanking Islam Feruz in attack, whilst the continental pairing of Andreas Christensen and Nathan Aké anchored a defence which welcomed back Adam Nditi at left-back and saw Isak Ssewankambo complete the group in front of goalkeeper Jamal Blackman.
Norwich included many an FA Youth Cup winner from last May’s victory over the Blues and should have been ahead in the opening seconds. A loose backpass by Nditi skidded off the wet turf at the Recreation Ground and allowed forward Jamar Loza a free run at goal. The big forward composed himself but was unable to guide his shot inside the far post.
It was an early sign that the pitch would be a factor as the rain lashed down heavily and relentlessly. Chelsea moved the ball quickly and with purpose and it was the 20 year-old Clifford who orchestrated things for the most part. His quick feet and awareness saw him beat two men wide on the left, and only a fine fingertip save by goalkeeper Remi Matthews prevented him from sticking the ball into the top corner.
His next effort came from a more central position, but this time cleared the crossbar. The hosts were dominating but being limited to long-range attempts like Baker’s skidding free kick moments later, and when they got into the attacking third they found themselves frustrated by a solid yellow defensive wall.
The Canaries, with pace aplenty in their forward ranks – including twin brothers Josh and Jacob Murphy – were not as much of a threat on the break as they looked to be on paper, and seemed content to secure their lot and ask Chelsea to break them down. As the weather remained truly abysmal, it proved harder and harder for them to do so, and the pace of the game dwindled as the first half finished goalless.
As they had in the opening exchanges, Norwich looked sharpest just after kick-off and began the second half in sprightly fashion, threatening through former Chelsea schoolboy Cameron McGeehan. He was denied by a superb block from Nditi, and as the hosts countered it looked as if Clifford had released Feruz, only for the offside flag to intervene.
The officials, however, then turned from villains to heroes as a penalty was awarded to the home side. Clifford was upended by McGeehan on yet another dribble into the box, although the Norwich midfielder felt aggrieved at the decision, having made a fair claim of winning the ball.
McEachran did the necessary from twelve yards to make it 1-0, replicating his successful conversion at the same end against Tottenham back in August.
The tackles then began to fly in, with Norwich’s Harvey Hodd booked for a late lunge on McEachran, whilst Brown was lucky not to have received a caution to balance things up for a reckless effort of his own minutes after. Josh Murphy struck that ensuing free kick just wide in a rare highlight for Norwich.
Alex Kiwomya made his return from injury just before the hour mark and within moments, he was celebrating his team-mates having extended their lead to two. It came courtesy of McEachran once again as he capped a wonderfully crafted move which also featured Clifford and Brown and bore the hallmarks of an academy system which has produced some very gifted, highly capable footballers.
Facing an increased deficit finally brought Norwich to life and armed with the powerful Loza in attack, they switched to a more direct approach in order to get him into the game. It worked too, with Blackman needing to be at his best to get down low in keeping away a shot following a goalmouth scramble. It was, however, a fleeting experience as Feruz’s wayward effort from some way out signalled a return to Chelsea controlling things.
Clifford, ever the architect, then released Aké with a trademark chipped through ball at the end of another fine spell of play, but the Dutchman couldn’t finish things off as Matthews was able to turn his well-struck shot away for another corner. With Norwich heads having long since dropped, Drummy’s boys began to almost literally queue up in an attempt to add to the scoresheet. Kiwomya unselfishly squared a ball he should have shot, Clifford asked Matthews into yet another good stop, and Brown followed that with a half-chance from a corner.
Blackman was able to preserve his clean sheet despite a couple of late hurrahs from the away team, including a miss by Jacob Murphy which defied belief; shooting wide as he bore down on goal with nothing but the big Chelsea goalkeeper to beat, and indeed, it was a first Under-21 shut-out of the season. It owed much to a sensational performance by Christensen, who made a succession of perfectly-timed tackles and led from the back with technically astute play as always.
The Blues have now taken nine points from their last three games, bouncing back well after an opening-day defeat to Spurs. They will hope to extend that run a week on Monday away to Everton, with some of the squad also set for midweek involvement against Basel in the UEFA Youth League.
Chelsea: Blackman, Ssewankambo, Christensen, Aké, Nditi, McEachran, Baker, Clifford, Swift (Kiwomya), Feruz (Loftus-Cheek), Brown
Subs not Used: Beeney, Conroy, Davey
Norwich City: Matthews, McNeil, Toffolo (Barker, Hodd, Gataiti, McFadden, Jacob Murphy, McGeehan, Loza, Hall-Johnson, Josh Murphy (Wyatt)
Subs not Used: Priestley, Norman
Goals: McEachran 51, 59
Booked: Hodd (Norwich)