Six months has rarely felt so long.
190 days after Chelsea beat Everton in PL2 action, competitive academy football returned with the Development Squad’s opening EFL Trophy fixture away to Oxford. Andy Myers’ boys suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat, and will be frustrated with the result on the balance of play, but pleased to be back playing.
It was a new-look Development Squad too, with 17 year-olds Levi Colwill, Lewis Bate and Valentino Livramento all in the starting line-up along with Lucas Bergström in goal, who recently turned 18 and was starting his first match since suffering a serious knee injury last November. Luke McCormick, George McEachran and Juan Castillo provided the experience while Thierno Ballo led the line in attack after a productive run during pre-season.
Oxford made wholesale changes from their weekend League Cup team but looked to be in good touch early on, with former Wimbledon and Burnley striker Dan Agyei a particular threat. Chelsea, however, found their groove after a quarter of an hour and began to display the hallmarks of a team that won the league title last season with an unbeaten 18-match league campaign. Had Ballo connected better with his shot at the end of a flowing move involving McEachran, Livramento and Henry Lawrence, it might have been a very early contender for goal of the season.
Instead, the home team went down the other end and took the lead through Agyei, who bundled home from close ranger after Bergström had failed to deal with Mark Sykes’ cutback. It was that sort of half for the Blues; McCormick and Ballo again saw chances come and go before Castillo was guilty of the most egregious miss, shooting too close to goalkeeper Jack Stevens in the Oxford goal when set clear down the left by a nifty reverse pass by Ballo.
Those misses were to cost them. McEachran hooked off the line shortly before the interval when Derick Osei Yaw’s header had Bergström beaten, but he wasn’t to be denied and slammed the U’s into a two-goal lead in first half stoppage time, beating the Chelsea offside trap before delivering a clinical finish.
Myers introduced Jon Russell for Bate at half time, seeking to add more of a physical presence to his midfield, and it paid almost immediate dividends. The new man had already worked Stevens into another save within sixty seconds of his arrival, but he was on target properly in the 53rd minute, finishing off a counter-attack led by Livramento, who showed both tenacity and composure in laying the goal on.
Game on, or so it should have been. The contest became scrappy and stretched and, instead of Chelsea upping the pressure, Oxford found the better chances. John Mousinho will have wanted to do better with a free header from a free-kick midway through the second period, but Lawrence kept them honest in response with a low skidding strike from 25 yards out that Stevens had to watch closely before parrying away.
George Nunn and Myles Peart-Harris were introduced to bring new life to the attack, and both were involved late on when Oxford were reduced to ten men after Sean Clare was forced off injured after they’d used all three substitutions, but it seemed that they wanted too many touches when in good positions to equalise. Maatsen had a powerful drive blocked, Russell had another deflect away for a corner, and Peart-Harris’ glancing header at the very end should really have found the target.
Trips to Walsall later this month and Bristol Rovers in November will determine the Blues’ fate in this competition, while their PL2 schedule gets underway this coming Monday lunchtime, when they welcome West Ham United to their new home at Kingsmeadow.
Oxford United: Stevens, Long, Mousinho, Jones, Forde, Clare, Sykes (Brannagan 58), Kelly (McGuane 59), Hall (Napa 74), Agyei, Osei Yaw
Subs not Used: Eastwood, Moore, Asonganyi
Goals: Agyei 17, Osei Yaw 45+2
Chelsea: Bergström, Lawrence, Simeu ©, Colwill, Maatsen, Bate (Russell 45), McCormick (Peart-Harris 77), McEachran, Livramento, Castillo, Ballo (Nunn 74)
Subs not Used: Wady, Ekwah, Lewis, Simons
Goal: Russell 53