Chelsea’s first Under-21 action of 2015 brought with it their toughest fixture of the campaign as a trip to Manchester City pitted first against second. The hosts came away with all three points courtesy of a 3-2 victory that takes them top of the table for the time being.
Dominic Solanke put Chelsea ahead very early on but Brandon Barker restored order just as swiftly and Thierry Ambrose ensured a half time lead for the Citizens. Solanke tied things up again during the second half and a point looked theirs but a stoppage time winner from substitute Bersant Celina sent Chelsea home with nothing.
Whilst coach Adi Viveash did have a talented and experienced squad available to him, including those who regularly train with Jose Mourinho, some of his more familiar faces were absent. Lewis Baker joined Sheffield Wednesday on loan earlier in the day, following in the footsteps of Alex Kiwomya (Barnsley) and John Swift (Swindon) earlier this month. Nevertheless, he still picked a strong team, starting with Mitchell Beeney in goal and a back four of Fankaty Dabo, Ola Aina, Andreas Christensen and Jay Dasilva.
Jordan Houghton donned the captain’s armband alongside Nathan Aké in midfield, allowing Ruben Loftus-Cheek to play in a more advanced role from the start, whilst Solanke led the line ably assisted from wide areas by Charly Musonda and Izzy Brown.
City included recent Premier League debutant Jose Pozo in their starting eleven but found themselves a goal behind with only two minutes on the clock. Centre-back Kean Bryan allowed a throw-in to slip under his foot and, quick as a flash, Solanke seized onto the loose ball and drove it into the back of the net before goalkeeper Angus Gunn could react to the unexpected danger.
The hosts would however only be behind for ninety-seven seconds. The perpetually under-rated Barker advanced down the left before coming inside, getting the better of Aina and lashing past Beeney at his near post to square the scores at 1-1 before those in attendance – including some 80 scouts – had been able to gather their breath.
It was a strong reaction to an unexpected opening to proceedings and allowed Patrick Vieira’s boys to settle the better. They were able to move the ball with a greater purpose on what was a poor playing surface and they quickly carved out openings in a bid to take the lead. Ambrose was presented with the best of them, firstly flicking just wide under pressure from Beeney after more good play by Barker before then taking too much time to get his shot away when well-placed, allowing the Chelsea stopper to do his job by beating it to safety.
The Blues, on the other hand, struggled to find their usual fluency and although Aké chucked himself into everything in midfield and Loftus-Cheek looked to power forward to great effect, the forwards often found themselves too isolated and outnumbered by their opponents. Solanke won a free kick that Musonda hit off target but aside from that they were unable to further threaten Gunn’s goal in the opening forty-five minutes.
Instead, City took the lead. A poor headed clearance by Aina landed at the feet of Pozo, who turned away from Houghton and dinked a ball in over the top for Ambrose, who got goal side of Dasilva before finally beating Beeney with a powerfully-struck effort through the goalkeeper’s legs.
The prolific frontman, who has also been amongst the senior team squads this season, could easily have had a first half hat-trick but spurned two mores chances before the break. He benefitted from another dazzling Barker run by volleying towards the top corner only to once again find Beeney in the way, and then headed over when unmarked and just four yards out after Beeney had got down low to beat out an effort from Barker himself.
A spark was clearly required for the visitors to get into the game and Viveash attempted to provide it by making a double substitution ahead of the second half. Jeremie Boga replaced Houghton and took up residence in the number ten position whilst Jake Clarke-Salter entered in place of Dabo, with Aina moving to right back in order to accommodate him alongside Christensen in the middle.
It didn’t quite have the desired impact with the next fifteen minutes of play rather tepid by comparison, and the chances that came along again went to City. Evans headed into Beeney’s arms from a corner and Barker flashed one wide from the left, whilst the closest Chelsea came was a glancing header from Aké after a fine free kick delivery by Brown.
There was a moment of controversy just after the hour mark when Solanke and Brown vociferously claimed that Gunn had collected a loose ball with his hands outside of the penalty area. The referee, as he did for much of the evening, felt nothing was doing but television replays conclusively showed that Gunn had handled it at least a foot outside of his box.
Beeney then continued his one-man defiance of City’s superiority by standing up well to kick away Barker’s latest effort and it would prove to be a key save as, with twenty minutes left, Chelsea levelled the scores at 2-2. Brown found Solanke to the right of the box and he got an early shot away that took a heavy touch off Bryan and looped over Gunn and into the far corner.
It was now City’s turn to look tired and a little lethargic as the goal energised Chelsea into perhaps their best spell of the match. The visitors pushed higher up the pitch and took full control over midfield and then should have gone back ahead when Dasilva found Aina with a peach of a cross only for the latter to seem surprised that the ball had found him and promptly prodded it over the bar.
Typically though, City won it in stoppage time, exactly as Chelsea had done to them down at Aldershot back in August. A searching cross-field pass was headed forward by Celina and picked up by Olivier Ntcham. He returned the favour by finding the Norwegian youth international and he capped a fine week for himself – he was on the first team bench on Sunday – by stroking the winning goal past Beeney to make it 3-2 and clinch all three points.
Manchester City: Gunn, Maffeo, Evans, Bryan, Angelino, Glendon (c), Ambrose, Pozo (Hiwula 78), Bytqyi, Barker (Celina 74)
Subs not Used: Bossaerts, O’Brien, Byrne
Goals: Barker, Ambrose, Celina
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo (Clarke-Salter 45), Aina, Christensen, Dasilva, Aké, Loftus-Cheek, Houghton (c) (Boga 45), Musonda, Brown, Solanke
Subs not Used: Granger, Colkett, Palmer
Goals: Solanke 2