In the end, everything ended all square.
After three meetings in thirteen days, Chelsea and Arsenal shared the spoils of their mini series, each notching one win apiece before this afternoon’s entertaining draw at an overcast Cobham.
A first half goal from Rhys Murphy had given Arsenal a lead very much against the run of play, but the Blues turned it around in the second half with strikes from Conor Clifford and Milan Lalkovic.
However, a brilliant stoppage time strike from Luke Freeman earned the Gunners a point they scarcely deserved.
Steve Holland made three changes to the team which lost at London Colney last week, bringing in Sam Walker, Josh McEachran and the fit-again Milan Lalkovic in place of Ross Turnbull, Michael Woods and Kaby.
Arsenal’s line-up featured half a dozen different names, losing experience in Craig Eastmond and Carlos Vela, who both left the club on loan moves in the closing days of January’s transfer window.
It was a lively start from the hosts, who were slow out of the blocks in the reverse fixture eight days ago and never looked like getting going. With that in mind, a good tempo was established from the off and early gains were sought through the advances of Aziz Deen-Conteh down the left flank.
Indeed, attacking from wide positions was clearly the focus of attention, drawing Arsenal’s defenders out of the middle and into uncomfortable ground. Lalkovic’s sixth minute cross missed contact with Adam Phillip by mere inches, the forward arriving unmarked with Ignasi Miquel having shadowed the Slovakian out to the wing.
Chances continued to arrive for Chelsea, with James Shea being forced into the first of a number of smart saves from a close range effort by Conor Clifford. He then plucked a right-footed effort from Gokhan Tore out of the air which had followed a slip by Daniel Boateng, but the Turkish Under-21 international will have been disappointed not to have come up with a stronger effort at goal.
A high-paced opening twenty minutes looked to be slowing down and allowing Arsenal to get into the game, but instead the hosts went even closer to grabbing the game’s first goal. Gokhan’s free kick from out on the left found the unmarked Phillip, but his header bounced back off the frame of the goal.
Lalkovic, who grabbed a famous brace at Stamford Bridge in the FA Youth Cup meeting between the two teams, looked fresh and lively after treatment on a minor hamstring problem and his endless running was causing nightmares for the Gunners’ back four.
Three half chances fell his way before half time but he lacked a little composure and a little luck in failing to convert any of them.
And instead, with a minute remaining in the first half, Arsenal stole a lead with their first shot on goal.
McEachran was caught in possession just outside his own area in a collision with Chuks Aneke, who was able to advance with men in support. He drew a challenge from Jeffrey Bruma before playing in Murphy, and the 20 year-old beat Walker with a composed finish.
There was enough time remaining before the break for Conor Clifford to go close with a rasping drive from eighteen yards out, but despite dominating the half. Chelsea found themselves staring at a one goal deficit.
Unfazed by the challenge, Holland’s charges came out for the second half and continued to play with pace, poise and aggression in attack, and were soon on the front foot again.
Chances fell to Lalkovic and Gokhan before Shea was finally beaten, and it came courtesy of a Conor Clifford special.
Neat and tidy approach play from Phillip and then Sala created the opening for the Irishman, who took a touch to set himself before rifling a low drive which sped beyond the Arsenal goalkeeper and crashed in off the post.
Inspired by the newly-restored parity, the Blues poured forward in search of a lead. Phillip’s honesty cost him a penalty after he was fouled by Boateng, but as he refused to go to the ground the referee allowed an advantage which was spurned.
Another fine stop from Shea denied Lalkovic but the visitors were unable to stave off the inevitable, and midway through the second half Chelsea took the lead.
Sala’s ball into the box was defended easily but not cleared, and Billy Clifford was allowed to pounce on possession. He flicked his way into the area with good agility and fizzed a beautiful ball across the face of goal, one which begged to be converted.
Lalkovic obliged at the far post, and despite vociferous appeals for offside from boys in red shirts, the linesman kept his flag down, a decision which appeared to be correct.
The goal appeared to put the game to bed, with Arsenal continuing to play sloppy football in the midfield, and Chelsea keen to wind down and rest some weary legs.
Phillip made way for Todd Kane in the only substitution made by Holland, but in the closing stages Arsenal sensed a chance to take a share of the spoils, and began to step up the pressure.
Freeman wasted a golden opening made by Ozyakup, who intended his pass for Roarie Deacon and not the young ex-Gillingham forward. As the shot blazed skywards, Deacon lambasted his team-mate.
He was jumping on him in celebration minutes later though, as in the first of four additional minutes brought about by an injury to Shea, Freeman jinked outside Billy Clifford and from an unexpected angle managed to lash a sensational strike into the top corner, leaving Walker rooted to the spot.
Chelsea will be disappointed that their much-improved performance was not rewarded with three points, but they will also learn some valuable lessons.
Creating a host of chances is one thing; converting them is another. Tiredness may creep in late in the game, but part of learning and developing is seeing these sort of matches through to the final whistle.
Every player in a blue shirt had a strong performance, particularly the attacking quarter of Sala, Gokhan, Phillip and Lalkovic. Their movement, tenacity and vision was entertaining and exciting, whilst they were ably assisted with very tidy showings by Conor Clifford and McEachran.
Plenty of positives, and a few lessons. Against Arsenal in particular, that’s a very good thing.
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Bruma (c), Pappoe, Deen-Conteh, C.Clifford, McEachran, Sala, Gokhan Tore, Phillip (Kane 78), Lalkovic
Subs not Used: Sebek, Kaby, Woods, Saville
Goals: C.Clifford 52, Lalkovic 63