The new academy season started in heartbreaking fashion for Chelsea’s academy side as they went down to a last minute goal against Manchester United.
Having led 2-0 in the first half, Dermot Drummy’s boys were pegged back and John Cofie won the points for the visitors deep into stoppage time.
A healthy attendance was present at a grey Cobham for the first league meeting between the two sides since a play-off meeting in the late 90s, and were treated to an intense battle between two of the country’s leading youth teams.
Drummy went with a tried and tested line-up which displayed experience, eschewing the inclusion of some of the schoolboys who featured in pre-season in favour of scholars. Ben Sampayo was handed the captain’s armband, George Saville took on the attacking midfield role, and there was a place amongst the substitutes for recent second-year import Mesca from Portugal.
The visitors – strikingly well built compared to Chelsea’s slight, smaller stature individuals (Prosenik aside) – started well and hitman Cofie had the first effort in anger, striking an effort from the edge of the area which skidded past Jamal Blackman’s left-hand post.
The visitors had imposed themselves on proceedings well in the early stages and were on top, dominating the midfield battle and spreading the play well. A free kick from Etzaz Hussain threatened momentarily but clipped the wall and went for a corner, whilst Jesse Lingard broke the offside trap as the linesman laboured behind play, yet wasted the opportunity and shot straight at Blackman.
Despite being on the back foot for most of the game, it was Chelsea who took the lead a little over halfway through the match. In one of their first real forays into the United area, a loose ball fell between defence and goalkeeper, and Milan Lalkovic pounced to nudge the ball past the onrushing Sam Johnstone and into the back of the net.
It was entirely against the run of play but brought confidence, and now settled with a lead, Chelsea began to express themselves. Saville tried his luck from distance twice and wasn’t far away on either occasion, and it was he who was making things tick in this spell at least.
If the first goal was a scrappy affair, the second ten minutes before the break was an early contender for goal of the season. A scintillating move of at least ten passes built through the centre of midfield with fine one-touch passing moved the ball out to Bobby Devyne on the right wing. He sized up a cross and put it perfectly into an area for Prosenik to attack. He held off captain Tom Thorpe to thunder the ball into the top corner.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t celebrate the goal for long, as it was 2-1 a minute later. Stirred into action by the deficit they now faced, Man Utd came forward along the left, where Sean McGinty unleashed a rocket from the far edge of the area which fizzed past the Blues goalkeeper and nestled into the far corner.
The referee brought to an end what had been an immensely enjoyable half, with both teams taking positives from the action, having had spells of dominance. Ryan Tunnicliffe had been the best player on the field and would grow in influence even further in the second half, dominating the centre of the pitch and providing drive into Chelsea’s defensive third of the pitch.
Chelsea were lucky not to give away an equaliser early in the second half when Archange Nkumu was caught in possession on the edge of the area, presenting Lingard with a gift of a chance. He bore down on Blackman but dragged his shot horribly wide of the target, a moment truly spurned.
With Danny Stenning struggling to shake off a knock picked up in the first half, he made way before the hour mark to allow Mesca to make a debut. Dubbed ‘Messi ‘by his team-mates, it proved not just to be a play on his name. Displaying nimble footwork combined with great composure, he immediately impressed, and also showed a commitment to work rate and the tackle, getting stuck in early with a thundering block on Tunnicliffe.
It was his introduction which saw Chelsea set about their best period of the second half, and one they will regret not taking advantage of. Devyne had a notable chance when he turned Michele Fornasier inside out, but as is often the case when presented with a chance, he failed to deliver.
Larnell Cole kept Blackman on his toes at the other end with a nice drive which demanded a sharp save, but it was mainly a Blue tide coming forward. Saville, booked for a series of fouls moments earlier, danced his way into the area but lost his balance when trying to find the shot and could only poke it at Johnstone.
Schoolboy Lewis Baker entered the action to replace Prosenik, slotting into midfield and leaving Devyne and Lalkovic as a wide front two. He immediately shot from long range, and whilst Johnstone wasn’t threatened, the effort was dipping late and wasn’t so far away.
Mesca was impressing the crowd in attendance and nearly capped his opening gambit with a sensational goal. Beating two men with mesmerizing footwork, he created space for a shot and curled it towards the top corner, but it landed inches the wrong side of the crossbar.
That United had held firm was to their credit, and it had bred confidence sufficiently for them to begin looking for an equaliser, as they still trailed 2-1. Todd Kane delayed the inevitable with a last-ditch clearance from the line, but as red shirts poured forwards, they drew level.
The ever-impressive Tunnicliffe was at the heart of the move, shrugging off a challenge outside the area to spread the ball wide for Cole. He squared for Cofie, who saw his shot blocked by a combination of Kane and Blackman, but the ball fell loose to right-back Michael Keane, who accepted the chance and rolled it into an unguarded net.
With the game coming into its final stages there was a clear desperation from both teams to find victory, and the tension was added to by a healthy amount of stoppage time due to three second-half injuries. The visitors introduced widemen Jack Barmby and Luke Hendrie to try and turn the game in their favour, and with almost the last touch of the match, they won it.
Thorpe strode forward authoritatively from the back and was afforded space whilst Chelsea defended deep. He sidestepped a challenge and played the ball to Cofie. Despite appeals for offside, the flag stayed down and the big number nine converted the chance to take all three points back home to Manchester.
A disappointing result for sure, considering just one team – Crystal Palace – came away from Cobham with all three points last season, but there will be some aspects of the performance to take heart from. Despite conceding three goals, the defence looked more assured than it did against Wolves last week, whilst the trio in attack were lively throughout.
Then, of course, there’s Mesca, who looks an exciting talent for sure, but on this afternoon, the disappointment of a stoppage time defeat will linger for a while.
Team: Blackman, Kane, Nkumu, Deen-Conteh, Sampayo (c), Rodgers, Stenning (Mesca 57), Saville, Lalkovic, Devyne, Prosenik (Baker 70)
Subs Not Used: Beeney, Nortey, Loudon
Goals: Lalkovic ’22, Prosenik ‘36
Man Utd: Johnstone, M.Keane, Fornasier, Thorpe (c), McGinty, Hussain, Tunnicliffe, Lawrence (Hendrie 80), Cole, Lingard (Barmby 85), Cofie
Goals: McGinty ’37, Keane ’78, Cofie ‘90+4