Chelsea’s Reserve team tasted defeat for the first time since being crowed national champions last May as they went down by a single goal away to an impressive Aston Villa side.
Callum Robinson’s first half opener came after an error of judgement by Rhys Taylor and despite some hard graft in midfield, Chelsea were unable to get back on terms.
With international call-ups depriving coach Dermot Drummy of some key squad members, the pack was shuffled from last week’s 3-3 draw with Everton. Schoolboy forward Alex Kiwomya made his first start at this level whilst returning loanee Ben Gordon joined Carl Magnay at centre-back, with Sam Hutchinson captaining the side from right-back.
Villa included first team experience in Carlos Cuellar, Marc Albrighton, Chris Herd and Ciaran Clark but also featured 16 year-old forwards Jack Grealish and Robinson.
The playing surface at Hinckley United’s Greene King Stadium was somewhat on the bobbly side and perhaps contributed to two early bookings as both Hutchinson and Herd had their names taken for a robust approach to tackling.
Kevin McDonald’s team were clearly keen to get the ball wide at every opportunity and it meant lively starts for Albrighton and Grealish, and the former had the first attempt of the game but found Taylor equal to his low right-footed effort.
Australian centre-back Shane Lowry went closer with a glanced header from Albrighton’s free kick but after a slow start, Chelsea began to find their game in the middle of the park and asserted themselves on proceedings.
A fine driving run from Jacob Mellis capped a swift move up the pitch but there was no blue shirt on the end of his teasing drive across the face of goal. A deflection took it behind for a corner, from which Clark was grateful to Albrighton for saving him the ignominy of an own goal as the winger headed his sliced clearance off the line.
Kaby dragged an ambitious effort wide before calamitious defending from Villa handed Chelsea a huge chance to go ahead, but neither Kiwomya nor the Portuguese winger could find a way past Calum Barrett, who smothered their close range efforts well.
However, Chelsea showed that they were equally capable of defensive mishaps and were made to pay for committing two in as many minutes.
Conor Clifford had a let off when Robinson failed to make him pay for conceding possession on the edge of his own box after receiving a short Taylor pass, but the teenage forward was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth twice, and intercepted Taylor’s next attempted ball forward before beating the Welshman with ease from close range.
Chelsea’s desire to play football from back to front may well be admirable, but on this occasion it cost a goal and was entirely avoidable.
They spent the rest of the first half trying hard to find a way back into the game but often struggled to find the transition up the pitch. Villa were comfortable to hold their shape and pick off loose balls, and nearly doubled their lead when Albrighton dragged an effort onto the post.
Drummy made no changes at the break but waited less than ten minutes of the second half to do so, bringing Adam Nditi into the game in relief of Kiwomya. It left Chelsea with no natural striker on the pitch.
Kaby moved into the most central attacking role but it was for all intents and purposes a 4-6-0 formation which did little to help the Blues’ lack of attacking penetration. Nditi immediately showed his youthful verve, with pace and direct running into the box, but a good tackle from right-back Webb denied him a shooting chance.
Taylor’s night then threatened to go from bad to worse as another desperate attempt at a short clearance only found Grealish, and despite it appearing as if the goalkeeper fouled the young Irish winger, the referee inexplicably signalled for a corner with everyone expecting a penalty and a red card.
Had he been dismissed it would have meant an opportunity for former Chelsea academy youngster James Russell. Now playing for Canvey Island, he has been coaching the younger age groups more and more in recent times and was named as the substitute goalkeeper in Jamal Blackman’s absence.
With that lifeline, the visitors were almost on terms when Mellis found Nditi out wide on the left, who in turn delivered a lovely ball across the face of goal, but Kaby was unable to apply the finish at the far post.
Chances were few and far between, relying more on Villa errors than Chelsea creativity. A long ball in search of Mellis was swept up by Barrett but the goalkeeper’s clearance was poor and only found Nditi.
He attempted a lobbed effort from some 35 yards out and wasn’t too far away, but his attempt landed on the roof of the net.
Such moments were increasingly rare though, and instead Villa’s sights of goal were far more convincing, although Clark twice missed the target with unmarked headers from set pieces.
Substitute Nditi was looking the most likely to make something happen for his team and with just over ten minutes to go it was his brilliant cross which threatened to finally unlock the Villa defence, but Saville was denied by Barrett, then the crossbar, and finally a brave defensive block in succession.
Going so close served to inspire the Blues, who upped their intensity and desire in the final ten minutes but were unable to find the way through. Rohan Ince entered for the final moments as a makeshift targetman but had little effect, and Chelsea fell to their first defeat of the season.
It was a spirited if slightly disjointed performance which clearly lacked the attacking threat the reserves have had for most of the last year. Good approach play fell flat in the final third and whilst the defenders generally dealt well with Villa at the other end, they paid for one individual mistake.
Team: Taylor, Hutchinson (c), Magnay, Gordon, Deen-Conteh (Ince 89), C.Clifford, Mellis, Saville, Kaby, B.Clifford, Kiwomya (Nditi 55)