One of Chelsea’s youngest Under-18 line-ups of the season went down 3-1 on Saturday morning to a Southampton team who got their business done early.
A pair of talented England Under-17 internationals did the damage as the Saints were three goals to the good inside eight minutes.
First, a free kick from the right was beautifully delivered by Luke Shaw and headed home at the far post before Shaw himself added the second with an even better direct set piece.
Before anyone had a chance to catch breath, Calum Chambers had prodded past Mitchell Beeney to cap a fine move and end the game as a contest.
With just a week between Wednesday’s FA Youth Cup victory over West Ham and the Quarter Final at Nottingham Forest, coach Adie Viveash rotated his squad, making ten changes and giving playing time to six schoolboys.
Alongside goalkeeper Beeney, who has featured often this season, there were starts for centre-backs Jordan Houghton and Dion Conroy plus Reece Mitchell in attack, fresh off a goal for the reserves last week.
Versatile defenders Archange Nkumu and Ali Gordon featured in midfield along with Anjur Osmanovic, the only survivor from midweek.
Having been stunned by the visitors’ early onslaught it naturally took Chelsea some time to find their feet and clear their nerves. Confusion between Conroy and left-back Nortei Nortey threatened to allow Chambers a second but Beeney saved well.
With pacy forwards Rowe, Curtis and Jake Sinclair – brother of former Blue Scott – Southampton were able to press high and often, forcing loose passes and mistakes.
A response was needed, and Viveash swapped Gordon and Houghton around, promoting the latter into midfield and changing from a two man base back to just Nkumu holding.
It had a positive effect, with Houghton much more suited to the role than Gordon and a more capable passer. Chelsea looked to play the ball wide and get Mitchell involved, and the diminutive striker began to cause problems.
He had one or two penalty appeals turned down and a couple of efforts blocked but was easily the most threatening home player and was making life hard for right back Fraser Colman.
Unfortunately, things got worse for Colman as he suffered a suspected broken leg in a nasty collision with Nortey when converging on a loose ball. The lengthy stoppage in play offered both managers a chance to talk to their boys, but it took what was left of the tempo out of the game and the half time whistle arrived without any further incident of note.
Fanky Dabo replaces Osmanovic at the break and was quickly joined by England U17 colleague George Cole, as the pair increased the schoolboy contingent to over half of the team on the pitch.
There was little happening however, with Southampton content to sit on their lead whilst remaining thoroughly comfortable at the back. When they came forward it was often to look for the quick runs of Sinclair, but the frontman was profligate with his opportunities.
Chelsea’s final sub saw Walter Figueira return after suffering a serious injury in August and he injected some much-needed impetus into the ranks.
With fifteen minutes or so remaining, they were offered a chance of a deserved consolation when Mitchell was felled by the goalkeeper inside the penalty area. Tom Howard confidently dispatched the spot kick to let a crack of light in and a small ray of hope.
Southampton saw a fourth rightfully ruled out for offside but otherwise sat back as Chelsea pressed for more, finishing the game with their best spell. Mitchell had another appeal for a penalty fall on deaf ears whilst Cole and Howard both saw half chances ultimately come to nothing.
The Blues certainly started the game poorly but the first ten minutes aside, they held up well against one of the very best academy outfits in the country. Had there not been a youth cup tie so immediately around the corner, a stronger team would likely have played and faired better.
Instead, some of the next generation got their chance and Conroy and Houghton especially did well, whilst there were important milestones for Howard, Nortey, Figueira and Sam Bangura, who have all been sidelined for much of the campaign but came through their longest playing time of the season. That, as much as anything, is the positive to take away from today.
Chelsea: Beeney, Bangura, Houghton. Conroy, Nortey (Cole 60), Nkumu (c), Gordon, Howard, Osmanovic (Dabo 45), Mitchell, Seremba (Figueira 65)