Chelsea began the defence of their FA Youth Cup crown on Saturday afternoon with an entertaining, if sometimes ragged, win away to Colchester United.
Islam Feruz’s early opener was followed by a Lewis Baker double, and that proved enough to secure a 3-2 win. The margin of victory might have been greater if not for some poor finishing, but just as equally, they were made to work very hard for the win.
With Jeremie Boga, Alex Kiwomya and Dion Conroy all ruled out through injury, Adi Viveash’s potential selection dilemmas were eased slightly. Under-21 regulars Alex Davey, Nathan Aké, Adam Nditi, Feruz and Baker all ‘dropped’ down to the younger age group, with Baker taking the captaincy. Aké played in midfield, with Jordan Houghton alongside Davey at the back.
The Blues had the lead inside three minutes when Feruz latched onto a through ball and stroked home confidently, but it was just the start of one of the most frenetic five minutes to ever open a game.
Immediately, Colchester responded through a Drey Wright shot which earned them a corner. Chelsea failed to clear their lines, which allowed Jack Simmons to sweep home from six yards out and equalise.
Yet with the cameras still focused on the home goalscorer, the visitors kicked off and after Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Feruz had combined, Baker found time and space on the left to convert his chance and restore the lead.
It was a remarkable spell of football, but fans and players alike were able to collect their breath from then on as a semblance of normality was found. Some sloppy and loose play was on display from both sides, perhaps due to the spacious confines around them as many a pass found itself underhit and short of its target.
Feruz and Baker, clearly the most potent goal threats on the pitch, both looked to add to their tallies from outside the box but could only find the empty seats behind the goal as Chelsea took full control over affairs.
Colchester regularly looked to play out to forward Macauley Bonne but he was well marshalled by Davey and so they were rarely able to retain possession and advance up the pitch.
Instead, Chelsea’s Baker moved deeper and more central as the half wore on, allowing Feruz and Mitchell to move around in attack with any one of four central players behind them ready to exploit the space they created.
With half an hour played, Feruz robbed captain Billy Roast and took off towards goal. Roast tripped him inside the box, the linesman flagged for a penalty, and Baker beat Conor Cable from twelve yards.
It remained 3-1 until the break, despite Alex Gilbey chancing his arm from range for the hosts and Mitchell hitting the post for Chelsea at the end of a flowing team move.
The woodwork was struck again ten minutes into the second half when Feruz was freed by a delightful piece of vision from John Swift, but the Scottish forward could only rattle the crossbar from close range.
But despite seemingly being on top, Chelsea then found their lead cut in half. Some less than impressive defending allowed Bonne to pick a cross from the right; it eluded Davey and found Sam Szmodics at the far post, and he beat Mitchell Beeney.
The action and tempo picked up again and Feruz soon found himself presented with another opening from Adam Nditi’s excellent cross, but ice again, the finish was missing. He tried to make amends a minute later but Cable came out to smother him with good timing.
Despite the considerable requests from an increasingly frustrated Viveash on the touchline, Chelsea failed to simply keep possession and allowed Colchester to spring on the break. They were fortunate that a free header for Bonne went straight into the grateful arms of Beeney.
A trio of changes provided the hosts with fresher legs and as the game ticked into its final quarter, there was a clearer urgency in their approach as they sought to get on terms. Chances, however, were scarce.
They certainly had Chelsea rattled though, and the more they imposed themselves the more they forced mistakes from their illustrious visitors. A couple of corners threatened to cause problems but neither ended up doing so.
In the final minute of regulation time sub Nnamdi Nwachuku did well to beat a man and draw Beeney into a smart low save, but despite late bookings for Davey and substitute Connor Hunte, Chelsea held on for the win.
They certainly didn’t play as well as they would have liked, particularly in the second half, but the experience will serve the team well – especially the first years – as they seek to retain the trophy. Credit must go to Colchester, who worked relentlessly to get back into the game, and they should have no regrets looking back.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Davey, Houghton, Nditi, Aké, Swift, Loftus-Cheek, Mitchell (Hunte 81), Baker (c), Feruz
Subs not Used: Killip, Howard, Colkett, Ssewankambo
Goals: Feruz ‘3, Baker ‘5, ’30 pen.
Booked: Davey, Hunte