Chelsea’s 100% start to the Barclays Premier Reserve League season came to an end at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Blackburn Rovers in a repeat of last year’s national final.
Jacob Mellis’ first-half opener had the Blues deservedly ahead at half time but a much improved Rovers responded in the second half and took a share of the spoils through Jackson Ramm’s header.
Dermot Drummy was missing a handful of key squad members who were away on international duty but was still able to call upon some more experienced faced in Ross Turnbull, Patrick van Aanholt and Mellis, whilst handing a debut at this level to first-year scholar Lewis Baker.
Blackburn included Nick Blackman, who has spent much of the last two seasons away on loan, but were otherwise similarly youthful in their approach.
Dutchman van Aanholt, who turned 21 yesterday, got forward to good effect early and often, rampaging past halfway both in possession and in order to receive it, and created the game’s first chance with a cross which George Saville met on the volley, but goalkeeper Matthew Unwin was able to save with relative comfort.
The match was being played at quite a tempo, with both teams keen to press their opponents relentlessly whilst attempting to move the ball quickly themselves. However, the game’s opening goal came after a more direct approach was taken.
Sam Hutchinson, featuring once again as he tests the strength of his knee, launched an inch-perfect ball from back to front which caught the visiting defence high up the pitch.
Mellis had made the run from deep in midfield and timed it to perfection, gathering the ball with a deft first touch before flicking the ball into the back of the net past the advancing Unwin.
Whilst the approach was very much route one, it was executed with quality and technique and was a deserved moment for the hosts, who had made the best of the early going.
Blackburn had struggled to do much with the ball but their discipline and work rate was impressive and they were making Chelsea work hard for any areas of space. Their first sight of goal came when Blackman headed over from close range following a free kick out on the left wing.
Chelsea looked to extend their lead as the first half wore on and had chances to do so. Mellis chanced his arm at doubling his tally with a curling effort from outside the box which Unwin gathered easily before Marko Mitrovic glanced Todd Kane’s cross just wide of the far post.
Saville thrashed a long-range shot wide of the target whilst Hutchinson and Carl Magnay regularly threatened from corners but Mellis’ goal was to be all the hosts would take into the interval.
Blackburn made a change ahead of the restart, introducing Jamie MacLaren for Blackman, who will presumably be moving elsewhere on loan tomorrow, and whilst it was more Chelsea dominance to begin with, their visitors started to come into the game.
Mitrovic went very close to making it 2-0 with a shot that took a wicked deflection and hit the post in a chance fashioned by good work by Kaby and Mellis, but Rovers fired a warning shot when substitute MacLaren headed wide from a corner.
Zac Aley’s skidding low effort served notice that Gary Bowyer’s charges were keen to restore parity and not long after the hour, they were able to. A fine cross from the left caused uncertainty in the Chelsea penalty box and Ramm was able to head home unmarked on the run at the far post.
In response, Drummy handed Adam Nditi a reserve debut in relief of another first-timer in Baker, who had been quiet but looked the part, and the Tanzanian-born winger added some pace and tenacity to affairs as Chelsea went in search of another lead.
Billy Clifford, playing in the ‘holding’ role on the night, carried the ball through the midfield to great effect on more than one occasion and with the opposition regularly backing of, he was invited to chance his arm with an effort.
He was unable to find the target, but in the next attack van Aanholt did, having marauded into a central attacking position, but once more Unwin saved what was really a tame effort.
Philipp Prosenik replaced the hard-working Mitrovic but in truth neither forward was having a great effect on things. Instead, Mellis was bossing the match, dictating the midfield and firing passes wide to find his full-backs in stride, keen to get into the attacking third.
That particular trio combined to work an opening for Mellis himself in the later stages of the match but Blackburn did just enough to stop him fashioning a shooting opportunity, and instead ambitious efforts from Nditi and Prosenik were as good as it got for the Blues.
Indeed, Blackburn might’ve stolen it in the closing moments but MacLaren’s composure let him down with the goal at his mercy, his curling effort missing the target and landing in the empty Shed Lower section behind the goal.
The teams would instead have to share the spoils and it was really a very similar affair to their last meeting back in May, with lots of decent enterprising play just missing a cutting edge.
A Chelsea side with Phillip, Lalkovic, and perhaps McEachran could quite conceivably have tipped the scales in their favour but Blackburn will say the same about players they were without and instead, the focus should be on the evening’s outstanding performers.
Mellis and van Aanholt looked a cut above and will surely be sealing loan moves with the transfer window closing, whilst centre-backs Magnay and Hutchinson looked assured and worked well as a pairing. For Rovers, Aley was impressive in midfield whilst goalscorer Ramm displayed energy, tenacity, and a difference-making finish.
Chelsea now face a three-week break from competitive football at this level and are next in action at home to Everton on September 26th.
Team: Turnbull, Kane, Hutchinson (c), Magnay, van Aanholt, B.Clifford, Mellis, Kaby, Saville, Baker (Nditi 61), Mitrovic (Prosenik 75)
Subs not Used: Taylor, Ince, Ashton
Goal: Mellis ’15