A new era in English youth football began on Friday night without a goal on the pitch but with many more ahead of them on and off the field.
Chelsea and Manchester City both drew blanks in the seaaon’s first Under-21 fixture, with the new competition throwing up a marquee clash on opening night.
It was a match high on quality throughout and one which promises much for the season ahead, but there was to be no headline-grabbing moment on the club’s return to Griffin Park.
Chelsea lined up much as they have done in pre-season, although there were starts for Nathaniel Chalobah and Lucas Piazon, who have spent almost all of the summer with the first team squad.
City featured two Spaniards, a Slovakian and a Frenchman but also England youth internationals Shay Facey, Kieran Kennedy, George Evans and Jordi Hiwula.
They had the best of the opening moments too, and were only denied an early lead by a fine save by Jamal Blackman. The big stopper was quick to smother Hiwula’s shot after enterprising approach play by Denis Suarez.
Chelsea got themselves into the pace of the game though, and quickly began to push their agenda.
The impressive work rate of their attacking players repeatedly resulted in turnover of possession amongst the visiting defence, and for a good spell the match was played on City’s half.
Patrick Bamford was presented with two fine opportunities but spurned the first – and arguably best – on his weaker foot, before Eirik Johansen did brilliantly to beat out a fierce effort from his much stronger left peg.
The lively movement of Lewis Baker and Billy Clifford combined with George Saville’s tenacity kept the hosts on top, but City’s capacity to break kept the Blues on their toes.
Hiwula had a goal rightfully chalked off for offside but Suarez and compatriot Marcos Lopes both had sighters towards the end of a goalless first half.
The frenetic pace of the first half wasn’t quite matched by the second, at least not until a chance-filled final ten minutes.
It took both sides some time to get reacquainted and goalmouth action was limited to hopeful long-range efforts flying high into vacant stands behind the target.
Not that the stadium was empty though; far from it. A healthy few thousand egged the next generation on, unsure of name but certain of ability on display.
Rusnak asked questions of Blackman and found the response emphatic in its denial, whilst Chelsea’s attempts at clipping perfect passes in behind were just falling short.
Bamford dragged one wide of the post before departing the scene for Thorgan Hazard, and there were also introductions for 16 year-olds Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Alex Kiwomya.
The real drama came at the death as both teams went close to winning. First, a clever backheel from Hazard found Clifford clear on goal, and although his finish was clever in leaving the otherwise impressive Johansen without a hope of saving it, the scooped lob hit the crossbar and fell to safety.
Then, with the last touch of the match, City sub Alex Henshall cut back onto his dangerous left foot and let fly, but Blackman was there again to preserve a clean sheet and a point.
City provided strong opposition and quality football, and whilst the Blues may be disappointed with dropping points at home, they will take a lot away from this display.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane (c), Davey, Aké, Deen-Conteh, Saville, Chalobah (Loftus-Cheek), B.Clifford, Baker (Kiwomya), Piazon, Bamford (T.Hazard)
Man City: Johansen, Facey, Kennedy, Wabara, Helan, Evans, Lopes (Henshall), Drury (Huws), Suarez (c), Rusnak, Hiwula (Bunn)
View Dan Davies’ match gallery HERE.
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