A goal from Conor Gallagher was enough to earn Chelsea’s Development Squad their first win of 2019, arresting a run of four consecutive defeats in the process, and keeping them in touch at the top of a very congested Premier League 2 table.
A 2-1 reverse away to Leicester on their last trip to the Midlands before Christmas was followed by disappointing results against Blackburn, Peterborough and Everton early in January, meaning this trip to a Derby County team that had beaten them at Stamford Bridge in August took on a broader importance in the context of what the rest of their season might look like.
They were more than up for the challenge though. Led by an influential performance at the back by Ethan Ampadu, who had dropped down from the first-team squad for the night, every player in blue played their part in an impressive team win. They rode their luck on occasion, but more than held their own overall, and remain in the chasing pack behind league leaders Everton.
Ampadu was joined in an otherwise familiar-looking starting eleven by 16 year-old defender Ian Maatsen, playing in an unfamiliar role at right wing-back as opposed to his usual left-sided preference, and Tariq Uwakwe, who was making his return after missing six weeks through injury. Marc Guehi captained the team in the absence of Richard Nartey and Josh Grant, the latter of whom is now on loan at Yeovil Town.
Derby started the night five points clear of Chelsea in the standings and have produced some stellar results this season, none better than a 5-0 drubbing of Arsenal, and they were the first to show their teeth midway through a first half that took a long time to get going. Louie Sibley’s free kick was kept alive by the beanpole defender Max Hunt, but Ampadu was on hand to throw enough of a block to deny Josh Shonibare the opportunity to score from close range.
Jamie Cumming was thankful for having lady luck on his side when his pass fell directly to Cameron Cresswell on the edge of his penalty area, the Derby man missing the target with his rather hurried effort, and at this stage the Rams looked the more likely to open the scoring. However, a strong finish to the half saw Chelsea first gain the upper hand, and then make good on their supremacy.
Gallagher drove much of it from midfield, setting up Charlie Brown for a fiercely-struck shot that was always rising, and then latching onto a misplaced pass to find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Josh Barnes. He was denied on that occasion, but made up for it a minute before half time, confidently finding the top corner with his left foot after good work out wide by Juan Castillo for his team-leading seventh assist of the campaign.
They set about defending their lead following the restart, happy to invite Derby to attack, knowing they possessed a dangerous counter-attack. Gallagher and George McEachran ably demonstrated that in the 52nd minute, constructing a move that looked to have given Daishawn Redan a goal, only for Barnes to make his second excellent save of the night.
Derby got into good positions with increasing frequency, but lacked a cutting edge when they arrived there. Jayden Mitchell-Lawson’s shot lacked conviction while Alex Babos’ touch let him down and saw his best efforts deflected to safety. The introduction of Tyree Wilson down the left brought an extra dimension to their play, and allowed Calum MacDonald to be more adventurous from behind him. His bustling and purposeful run looked to have done the trick only for the ever-present Ampadu to clear his lines once again.
Brown might have done better from a tight angle after more good approach play from McEachran, but the chance was on his weaker side, and a scrappy last ten minutes threatened to boil over with Derby’s frustrations increasingly tangible. Referee Declan Bourne somehow found seven minutes of stoppage time, in which the hosts had several opportunities to throw the ball into the box from set pieces, but Chelsea held strong and return home with a very well-earned three points. They will hope to build upon that at home to Swansea on February 15th before a tricky-looking run of games has them facing Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in succession. The season starts here.
Derby County: Barnes, Gordon, MacDonald, Bird, Bateman, Hunt, Mitchell-Lawson, Sibley, Cresswell, Babos (Eyoma 82), Shonibare (Wilson 67)
Subs not Used: Yates, Rashid, Karic
Chelsea: Cumming, Maatsen, Colley, Ampadu, Guehi, McEachran, Gallagher, Uwakwe (Mola 73), Redan, Brown (Nunn 90+6), Castillo
Subs not Used: Žiger, Lavinier, Lawrence
Goal: Gallagher ‘44