Chelsea’s Under-18s kicked off their Merit Stage fixtures with a resounding 4-0 win away to West Ham on Friday lunchtime at Little Heath.
Three weeks after a three-goal triumph on the same pitch, the Blues went one better as two excellent finishes courtesy of Callum Hudson-Odoi were sandwiched by efforts from Luke McCormick and Cole Dasilva to get their title bid off to the best of starts.
The Merit Stage aligns the top four teams from the Southern section with the top four from the North to determine a national champion, and whilst Chelsea will face Manchesters United and City plus Blackburn and Liverpool in their quest for silverware, their first challenge was a trip back across London to face a West Ham side that qualified by virtue of Fulham’s failure to win against Norwich last weekend.
With a Development Squad fixture on Monday and an FA Youth Cup Semi Final at Tottenham on Tuesday, the squad had to be juggled accordingly, but Jody Morris was able to field a stronger team than for their previous win in Romford. Jared Thompson, Joseph Colley, Martell Taylor-Crossdale and Hudson-Odoi all came into the team, with a 3-4-3 formation deployed again meaning Reece James saw more time playing the same right-sided centre-back role Cesar Azpilicueta fulfills for the first team.
Three weeks ago the first half was a scrappy affair and the Blues were forced to wait and work for their eventual reward. Perhaps with that in mind, they were much faster out of the traps this time around and looked sharp in the opening ten minutes, Taylor-Crossdale unlucky with a half chance on the edge of the area whilst off-balance.
The nineteen-goal leading scorer did, however, play a big part in the opener with less than a quarter of an hour played. Cutting inside from the right with an impudent backheeled chop of the ball, he left Tunji Akinola stumbling to the degree that he brought the Chelsea man down for a penalty. McCormick sent Rihards Matrevics the wrong way from twelve yards to maintain his 100% success rate and convert his 8th goal of the campaign.
Then Hudson-Odoi took over. Moments after Tariq Uwakwe had seen a volley well saved, the schoolboy forward latched onto a through ball to race clear of the last defender, round Matrevics and double the advantage with all the coolness and composure of a far more experienced footballer.
That was just the starter though. The main course provided the highlight of this or any game to make it 3-0 with one of the goals of the season. James was the provider this time, winning possession with a crunching challenge before flicking a searching ball over the top to Hudson-Odoi. A touch on the chest was all he required to settle himself before then delivering a glorious lob over the sizeable Matrevics, landing perfectly over his head and into the far corner. It was as good a goal as you’ll see anywhere all season.
West Ham, who had only been able to call upon a Joe Powell free kick by way of response, had been blind-sided by the quickfire treble, and simply couldn’t handle their London rivals. Juan Castillo had a convincing shout for a penalty turned down, as did George McEachran, who was quite clearly hauled back when clear on goal, but the appeals fell on deaf ears.
Taylor-Crossdale planted one just over the bar at the end of the first half, but the interval changed nothing, and Chelsea proved that by adding a fourth within moments of the restart. It came from Dasilva, who steered a left-footed shot into the corner after a dummy by McEachran and with the panache of a forward, and it was his third goal in as many games, having previously found the scoresheet here last time out and against Brighton in the 13-0 thumping before that.
McEachran, Uwakwe and Marc Guehi were duly rested with next week in mind, whilst their teammates kept the pressure up, maintaining a strong shape and terrific work ethic to make things extremely hard for the hosts. To their credit, West Ham did manage to make one or two things happen later in the match, most notably when Jahmal Hector-Ingram won a penalty for a foul by James, but it really wasn’t their day as Korrey Henry’s unconvincing effort was well saved by Thompson in the Chelsea goal.
James, Taylor-Crossdale, and substitute Harvey St Clair all went close to making it five towards the end, whilst Hudson-Odoi rattled the side netting in search of a hat-trick to cap his Man of the Match display. With four home games and trips to Liverpool and Manchester to come, the 4-0 final score gives Morris’ boys a fine platform to build from, not just for the league, but ahead of a tough Youth Cup Semi Final against Tottenham.
Tickets for both legs are now on sale via ChelseaFC.com, with the first leg being played at White Hart Lane on Tuesday evening before the return leg at Stamford Bridge at 5.15pm on Saturday week.
West Ham United: Matrevics, Eggleton, Neufvile (Hannam 62), Coventry, Akinola, Alese, Johnson, Lewis, Hector-Ingram, Powell (Scully 68), Henry
Subs not Used: Forde, Hamilton, Constantinou
Booked: Alese, Lewis
Chelsea: Thompson, C.Dasilva, James, Colley, Guehi (Grant 62), Uwakwe (Gallagher 62), Hudson-Odoi, McCormick (c), Taylor-Crossdale, McEachran (St Clair 71), Castillo
Subs not Used: Bułka, Ugbo
Goals: McCormick 13 (pen), Hudson-Odoi 17, 24, C.Dasilva 47