Chelsea’s Reserves learned an important lesson on Monday evening at Stamford Bridge.
A lesson, in fact, they could do well to take from the first team they’re aspiring to join: when you’re on top, be ruthless.
One of the finest 45-minute performances you’re likely to see anywhere opened the campaign in front of a lively crowd but the young Blues went into the break with just a Fabio Borini goal to show for their dominance.
Ross Barkley’s second half header pegged them back and gave Everton a point their second half rebound had deserved.
Steve Holland’s first selection of the season incorporated experience in the form of captain Borini, Patrick van Aanholt and Michael Mancienne, but also afforded opportunity to youth in the shape of schoolboy Nathaniel Chalobah, deployed in a midfield holding role in what became a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Jacob Mellis and Gokhan Tore flanked Josh McEachran, who would adopt something of a floating role behind the line Italian frontman. He would have a highly influential half.
Wearing pink in opposition were new signings Joao Silva and Magaye Gueye, supported by the injury-afflicted James Vaughan. A smattering of youngsters was complemented in goal by the most experienced man on the field, Slovakian World Cup goalkeeper Jan Mucha.
Despite the half they were about to have, Chelsea almost fell behind in the opening minute. Mancienne faced pressure to clear and only succeeded in playing Silva in close to goal. His effort drew a sharp save from Sam Walker, throwing up a hand to prod the ball to safety.
It was to prove a rare moment of action at the Matthew Harding Stand end, as the hosts took a hold of the game. Some lovely one and two-touch passing brought a fluidity to proceedings, with the ball being spread wide at every opportunity. This in turn created space inside for the likes of Mellis, McEachran, and Conor Clifford to thrive upon.
Mellis began the barrage of first-half attempts with a sighter which cleared the crossbar and was followed twice in quick succession by Borini, who was his typical lively self. McEachran chanced his arm but failed to connect cleanly and dragged his effort wide, whilst Gokhan’s free kick dipped late and landed on top of the goal, fooling some supporters into thinking he had opened the scoring.
With both Billy Clifford and van Aanholt joining the attack, the sea of blue became overwhelming for Everton, who were unable to escape their own half at times. Mellis was influential in driving the transition between defence and attack, McEachran used the ball intelligently and patiently, and runs in behind from any number of players was causing mayhem for the visiting back line.
When they finally hit the target, Mucha showed that he was up for a battle, and would remain so all night. He got down well to palm Borini’s skidding effort away to safety, but minutes later was unable to do anything to deny the same man.
Play built up down the left, with Mellis flicking the ball wide to van Aanholt. His quick ball inside found Borini’s feet, and he ignored calls from the edge of the area for a layoff, instead turning and curling an accurate shot past the outstretched hand of the Slovakian and into the back of the net.
It was the least they deserved, but unfortunately it was all they were going to get. The goal woke Everton up and they were able to break upfield, with Gueye stinging the fingers of Walker from wide on the left.
Van Aanholt caused a worrying moment for Mucha as he spilled the Dutchman’s free kick, but was able to grab it at the second attempt, whilst a wayward header from McEachran and a sumptuous curler from Borini failed to add to the scoreline.
The lead was just a single goal as the teams retreated indoors, and it genuinely did not do Chelsea’s performance justice. They will certainly not have wanted the half to end, as Everton came back out for the restart with a renewed vigour and work ethic, and it showed as they were able to work themselves back into the game.
They had to rely on their goalkeeper to keep them in with a fighting chance in the early stages though, as Mucha made an acrobatic stop to keep Borini’s glancing header at bay. The opportunity was created by a perfect delivery from van Aanholt, who had a highly impressive showing.
Searching for a way back into things, Alan Stubbs’ team began feeding the ball down the left to Gueye on a regular basis. Chelsea’s defence on that side consisted of Billy Clifford and Rohan Ince, considerably less experienced than the left pairing of Mancienne and van Aanholt, and the approach was bearing fruit.
Shortly before the hour mark, parity was restored. A contentious free kick was given to the visitors, with Chelsea protests of a foul on Ince strangely ignored. As Walker shouted for the young defender to push higher up, the defence was consequently too deep for the delivery, and Ross Barkley looped a spinning header into the back of the net.
The tide had well and truly changed and it was a sea of pink shirts now making everything happen. Walker was standing toe-to-toe with Mucha in the spectacular saves department, flying at full reach to deny Akpan from another set piece. Chelsea were flustered, and looked a little fatigued. There wasn’t the same zip and buzz about their play, and their decision making was half a second slower than earlier in the game.
With time running out, Holland played a trump card and introduced all three substitutes at once. Energy was clearly needed and provided by Kaby and Milan Lalkovic, with Jacopo Sala’s guile restored to the team for the first time since last season, as the Italian was afforded a longer summer break after an international tournament.
Conor Clifford was withdrawn along with Mellis and Gokhan, and as the last ten minutes arrived, only Mancienne, Ince, and Chalobah were regularly found at the back, with Chelsea searching for a winner.
Lalkovic went desperately close to making an immediate difference, running in behind and shooting quickly to the near post, but once more the Blues were denied by Mucha. It wasn’t to be the last chance to take three points, with as many as four more arriving in the closing stages.
Chalobah had the first, running from deep to take the ball as Borini appealed for a penalty, but carried too much speed and found his volley flashing wide of the target. Then, as van Aanholt surged forwards yet again, Lalkovic was unable to connect with a driven ball across the face of goal.
Sala drew an umpteenth save from the Slovakian in stoppage time, but as McEachran flicked a free kick high, wide, and not very handsome, the game was up, and the teams shared the points. Given the balance of the game, it was probably a fair outcome, but the football played by the home team in the first half surely deserved more than it got.
Nevertheless, there were some superb performances both individually and tactically. Players roamed freely around the pitch safe in the knowledge that they were afforded cover by somebody else slotting into their spot, and Chalobah was of key importance for this to happen. For one so young, his positional discipline and reading of the game whilst Clifford, Mellis, McEachran, and Gokhan did their thing ahead of him was superb.
Plenty of positives to take from the evening, and it all happened in front of Messrs Ancelotti and Wilkins. When’s that Carling Cup draw?….
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Ince, Mancienne, van Aanholt, Chalobah, C.Clifford (Kaby 78), Gokhan Tore (Lalkovic 78), Mellis (Sala 78), McEachran, Borini (c)
Goal: Borini ’21
Everton: Mucha, Nsiala, Mustafi, Duffy (c), Bidwell, Baxter, Akpan, Barkley, Gueye (Craig 60), Silva (Wallace 45), Vaughan
Goal: Barkley ’56
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