Chelsea’s return to reserve team football after three weeks away lacked nothing in an evening of ups and downs at St. James’ Park.
Having trailed early in the game, a brace from Milan Lalkovic had given the Blues the lead, but a second half goal from Haris Vuckic appeared to have ensured a share of the spoils, until Adam Phillip, returning from a year out through injury, won and converted a last-gasp spot kick.
With a clutch of key players unavailable having been in Slovakia last night with the unstoppable first team, Steve Holland was once again forced to shuffle his pack. Jan Sebek was able to return to action after shoulder surgery to replace Sam Walker in goal, whilst Daniel Pappoe was able to make a return to the Reserve team, as captain, after an operation of his own.
Aziz Deen-Conteh deputised for Patrick van Aanholt at left-back, whilst Nathaniel Chalobah continued in midfield. With Fabio Borini part of the European contingent and Marko Mitrovic still injured, Lalkovic led the line in the number nine shirt, supported by Gokhan Tore and Jacopo Sala.
Newcastle featured a smattering of experience as Peter Beardsley and Steve Stone gave another runout to veteran defender Sol Campbell in a bid to boost his match fitness. The ex-England international was joined by Tim Krul, Tamas Kadar and Nile Ranger from the first team squad.
It took a mere ninety seconds for the hosts to take the lead, and it came in fine fashion. Some scrappy play – and poor tackling from Chelsea in midfield – led to Ryan Donaldson shooting from 25 yards out, and his effort flew past Sebek into the bottom corner.
The goal signalled a twenty minute spell of dominance from Newcastle, who were buoyed by their early lead, and to exacerbate their problems, Chelsea were playing terribly. The midfield lacked cohesion and commitment, allowing their opponents to move the ball and play with space.
Sebek had to be sharp to beat away another long range effort in the early stages, and there was a collective sigh of relief when Ranger’s header was ruled out for offside, the big striker having been left completely unmarked in the penalty area.
Whenever Chelsea could break out, they were looking to exploit Campbell’s apparent lack of pace, playing Lalkovic in behind, but they reckoned without his experience and organisation, as the Slovakian was largely caught offside, although one or two decisions were up for debate.
It took until almost the half hour mark for the first shot on Krul’s goal, and even then it came from a set piece. Sala got his effort on target, but it lacked pace and was easily collected by the Dutch Under-21 stopper.
Things really began to turn in the visitors’ favour, however, when they began to heed the advice of their coach. Holland had been urging his troops to play a higher line at the back, and when they started to do so, it paid dividends.
Pappoe strode forwards, coming over the halfway line, and slipped a ball in between Newcastle defenders. Lalkovic was onto it in a flash, this time onside, and he displayed composure to take the ball on and slot it into the far corner of the net.
The equaliser wasn’t exceptionally deserved, but it was the precursor to a spell of play which would justify the half time lead Chelsea would hold. Playing with pace and poise, the young Blues began to strut their stuff, marginalising Ranger at the other end as Ince in particular got to grips with the task at hand, and they took the lead on the stroke of half time.
Again it was a member of the back four who provided the assist, as Deen-Conteh surged into the area after picking up a loose ball. He was able to get his head up and cut the ball back to the waiting Lalkovic, who took a touch before expertly dispatching the ball into the same corner as his first goal.
Sala might have added a third before the break but failed to hit the target with a far post half volley, but the boys retreated into the changing room with a lead and a spring in their steps, having turned a dreadful performance into a quite impressive one in the space of twenty minutes.
Often, the second half will start slowly, as both teams look to find the pace of the match again, but Chelsea flew out of the traps and had a goal of their own chalked off by the linesman on the far side of the pitch.
It was Sala, having moved to the left flank, who had strayed just a little too far ahead of his man and thus saw his finish count for nothing.
With each side having enjoyed a dominant spell in the first half, the game took on a more balanced look. Newcastle’s approach was to build play patiently from wide positions, whilst Chelsea broke through the middle with pace, as Mellis took the game on his shoulders and became more of an influence on proceedings.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium, but any openings that did emerge fell to opposite numbers nines. Ranger sent a free header over the crossbar from a Shane Ferguson free kick, whilst Lalkovic saw two opportunities for a hat-trick come and go without adding to his tally.
When the fourth goal arrived, it was courtesy of defending from Chelsea which unfortunate and disappointing in equal measure. Having committed players forward for a corner, they were caught by a quick Newcastle break, and numbers were short.
Deen-Conteh looked to have broken the play up with a fine tackle, but the ball broke kindly to Ranger. He took on Billy Clifford before turning and giving Haris Vuckic a tap in from six yards out.
Having restored parity, Joan Edmundsson and Phil Airey both went close to giving Newcastle the lead, but neither were able to breach Sebek’s goal for a third time. With Chelsea looking for fresh legs in the final quarter of an hour, Kaby was introduced in relief of Pappoe, allowing Chalobah to move into defence.
Airey had a golden chance to steal a win with just over five minutes remaining as he pounced on a rebound after Sebek parried, but he was denied by a block from Man of the Match Deen-Conteh.
The England Under-19 defender soon went on an eighty yard run before coming to a halt with no options, but his stamina, crucial defending, and overall play on the night was a cut above anyone else, a truly superb outing.
Adam Phillip made his return from injury, replacing Lalkovic, whilst Michael Woods entered the fray for Gokhan, but the game petered out in the last few minutes, as both teams appeared to have settled for a point.
Then, with mere seconds remaining, Mellis won the ball back and slipped a ball in behind for Phillip. Showing his trademark burst of acceleration, he beat Krul to the ball and was upended in the area, and a penalty was given.
Phillip picked the ball up himself to take, despite the concerns of Conor Clifford, and confidently sent Krul the wrong way to seal the three points with the last touch of the game.
Team: Sebek, B.Clifford, Ince, Pappoe (c) (Kaby 75), Deen-Conteh, Chalobah, C.Clifford, Mellis, Sala, Gokhan Tore (Woods 87), Lalkovic (Phillip 85)
Goals: Lalkovic ’34, ’44, Phillip ’90+3 pen
Newcastle: Krul, Newton, Kadar, Grieve, Campbell (Dummett 77), Vuckic, Donaldson, McLaughlin (McDermott 63), Ferguson (Airey 74), Edmundsson, Ranger
Goals: Donaldson ‘2, Vuckic ’70
(photo courtesy of nufc.co.uk)