Chelsea’s Reserve team extended their unbeaten run to six matches and completed a hat-trick of consecutive wins over North-West opposition with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic on Monday afternoon.
A first half goal from Billy Clifford ensured all three points would be heading back down south as the Blues moved into second place in the South Group, and are in with an outstanding chance of this season’s title.
With the likes of Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah away on international duty, and top goalscorer Fabio Borini having departed on loan to Swansea City, manager Steve Holland was forced to once again shuffle a reduced pack.
Jan Sebek came in for Sam Walker in goal, whilst Jacopo Sala returned in midfield after a two-match absence. Adam Phillip led the line in attack after two goals against Blackpool last Monday, flanked by Milan Lalkovic and Bobby Devyne, who was making his first start at this level.
The hosts, fielding a young team themselves, have been in good form this season and knew a win would take them top of Northern Group A, albeit by virtue of having played more games than teams around them.
They were also the quickest out of the gates, making their presence felt from the off and drawing Sebek into his first work of the day after just five minutes as the giant Czech stopper came to collect a dangerous looking cross from Adam Buxton.
Minutes later, Jordan Rugg combined well with Buxton before sending a low effort towards goal which skidded just past the outside of the post.
The Latics – unbeaten at home in over a year in reserve team football – were well on top in the opening stages and spurned another sight of goal when Roman Golobart’s header from Abain Serrano’s corner was just too high.
However, just shy of midway through the first period, Chelsea took the lead with a moment of real quality. Lalkovic worked a yard of space with fabulous footwork before firing a ball across the face of goal, and it was met at the far post by Clifford, who fired a superb finish past Lee Nicholls.
The goal gave Holland’s boys confidence, and they began to move the ball around with more speed and decisiveness to their play. They had to remain on their toes though, as Callum McManaman was denied an equaliser only by the quick instincts of Aziz Deen-Conteh, who cleared a lobbed effort off the line.
Wigan midfielder Jonathan Breeze was booked for a rough challenge on Deen-Conteh and ran his luck again minutes later as the hosts appeared to be losing their heads somewhat, in the face of an opponent who were now playing with their collective tails up.
Both sides had one more attempt before the half time break but neither Kaby nor Jordan Mustoe could keep their efforts down from outside the box.
There were no changes in personnel at half time, but Wigan – perhaps expectedly – came out for the second half with a renewed purpose and enthusiasm in search of an equaliser, and went close once again through Rugg before forcing a series of corners.
McManaman was starting to pull the strings for Graham Barrow’s boys and the forward laid on a wonderful chance for Tom Chow to score, but the youngster’s finish flew inches wide of the goal with Sebek beaten.
Pappoe saw an effort miss at the other end but it was brief respite from a constant barrage of Wigan attacks. McManaman was next to try his luck but the finish was once again wide of the mark.
With less than half an hour remaining the hosts were still well in control despite trailing, but Nicholls was alert to deny Kaby a goal which would have put the game beyond doubt for Chelsea.
The high tempo and tenacity Wigan had displayed for the best part of half an hour appeared to have taken it’s toll on their players, and as the match approached the final ten minutes, Lalkovic had a chance to add a second for the visitors, but his finish was poor.
Instead, Barrow’s young charges dug deep for one last hurrah and would have had their arguably deserved goal but for a quite outstanding save from Sebek to deny the effervescent McManaman from close range.
However, they were noticeably struggling and were reduced to ambitious attempts from long range, none of which interested Sebek whatsoever. For Chelsea, substitute Marko Mitrovic had a chance laid on a plate by Lalkovic but was unable to convert what would have been his first goal of an injury-hit season.
Holland’s boys were able to hold on and claim another victory, one which moves them up to 27 points, four shy of Arsenal but with three games in hand. They were forced back and had to defend for much of the second half, but a staunch rearguard and a commited performance will doubtless make the long journey home a very satisfying one.
Team: Sebek, Kane, Pappoe (c), Kalas, Deen-Conteh, Sala, Kaby, Clifford, Devyne, Lalkovic, Phillip
Subs: Walker, Affane, Saville, Mitrovic, Nkumu
substitute details to follow
Goal: Lalkovic ’19