Chelsea’s Development Squad booked their place in the knockout rounds of the Checkatrade Trophy with a 3-1 win against Exeter City at St James Park on Tuesday night.
Having failed to win a single fixture in their debut foray into the competition a year ago, the Blues had proven to be more resilient this time around, earning draws against both Plymouth and Yeovil, but penalty shootout defeats on each occasion had the left them needing to win in their final group stage fixture if they were to set up a trip to MK Dons in the last 32.
Despite falling behind to Reuben Reid’s seventh-minute opener, Chelsea were the better side, and after Callum Hudson-Odoi poached an opportunistic equaliser before half time, they never looked back. Defenders Reece James and Josh Grant added to the scoreline in the second half to join Leicester, West Ham and Swansea as the only Under-21 teams to make it out of the group stages, after Yeovil had helped them out with a win over Plymouth.
Donning black armbands in memory of Dermot Drummy, the former academy coach who so sadly passed away on Monday, the Blues made four changes from the team that lost 3-1 to Liverpool at Cobham on Saturday. Jamie Cumming, Jake Clarke-Salter, Martell Taylor-Crossdale and Harvey St Clair made way for Marcin Bułka, Richard Nartey, Isaac Christie-Davies and Kylian Hazard as Joe Edwards plumped for a 3-4-3 formation in a must-win fixture.
Exeter boss Paul Tisdale also opted for a youthful team, absent of many of his league regulars, but it was a team still very much capable of posing a threat to Chelsea, and they took the lead very early on. Reid, one of the few veterans involved, climbed above James to direct a simple header past Bułka to make it 1-0 with their first meaningful attack.
Having gone behind almost as early in the same fixture in this competition a year ago, Edwards could have been forgiven for wondering if the Blues were going to be in for a long and cold night in Devon, but his players responded well and took the game to the Grecians. Much of the good play went through Jacob Maddox and Hudson-Odoi; the latter seizing on a loose ball only for his shot to be blocked, before Hazard rose highest in an unsuccessful bid to direct Dujon Sterling’s cross towards goal.
Maddox himself then cut Exeter open through the middle of the pitch, exchanging passes with Hudson-Odoi, but couldn’t get his shot away under pressure, but the pressure continued to mount up, with Sterling finding plenty of space down the right and Hudson-Odoi coming into his own in a free role up front. A left-footed shot wide of the target served further notice before he finally made his mark after half an hour, seizing on a poor header by Craig Woodman and slipping the ball past goalkeeper James Hamon and into the back of the net.
He almost had a second before the break as Jordan Storey was caught napping, but Hamon was able to stand up and make the save whilst the Chelsea man was under pressure from the retreating Exeter defender, but it was the visitors who had enjoyed by far the better of the opening forty-five minutes.
There was more of the same after the restart; after taking ten minutes to consolidate their platform, the Blues started to raise the tempo once again, and James was unlucky to be denied by the woodwork with a header from Hudson-Odoi’s searching cross after a quickly-taken corner.
Martell Taylor-Crossdale came on to bolster the attacking options and, with a little more than twenty minutes remaining, they got the all-important second goal that their performance warranted. Another short corner saw Hudson-Odoi fashion a crossing opportunity, and he provided the inch-perfect delivery for James, who made no mistake this time with a free header from six yards out.
Had Taylor-Crossdale taken a gilt-edged chance moments later, Chelsea would have been able to see out the remainder of the contest with relative comfort, safe in the knowledge that they had at least done their part of the evening’s permutations, but the young forward snatched at the ball and powered it wide of the far post. Instead, they endured a tense ten minutes before Grant made the win safe with his second goal of the season. Smart approach play released Sterling down the right, and he had the composure and skill to settle before picking out his opposite wing-back for a simple headed finish.
They just needed a Yeovil winner down at Huish Park and Sam Surridge obliged with an 89-th minute volley to ensure the Glovers would win the group, with Chelsea heading to Milton Keynes as runners-up.
Exeter City: Hamon, Collins, Storey, Woodman, Wilson (Dean 62), Sparkes (randall 62), Byrne, Edwards, Harley (Hartridge 45), Reid, Jay
Subs not Used: Pym, McAlinden, Kite, Key
Goal: Reid ‘7
Chelsea: Bułka, James, Nartey, Chalobah, Sterling, Sammut, Maddox, Grant, K.Hazard (St Clair 75), Christie-Davies (Taylor-Crossdale 62), Hudson-Odoi
Subs not Used: Colley, C.Dasilva, Cumming
Goals: Hudson-Odoi ’29, James ’69, ‘84