Chelsea’s winless streak at Under-21 level was extended to three matches on Friday night as Middlesbrough made the long trip south and came away with a thoroughly well-earned 3-1 win.
A late first half strike had given them the lead and although Chelsea responded during a strong second-half spell, they were undone by two late strikes and lost for the second time this season.
Dermot Drummy made one change from Monday’s match at Crystal Palace, giving a first start of the season to 15 year-old Jeremie Boga. Ruben Loftus-Cheek made way, with Billy Clifford dropping deeper into midfield alongside recent goalscoring hero George Saville.
The first half was generally forgettable affair with few chances for either team. Chelsea should really have had the lead inside thirty seconds. Bamford’s pull-back from the right found Boga, who contrived to put the ball high over the crossbar from six yards out.
Boro responded well and went close themselves when Ryan Brobbel slammed a shot against the post from the edge of the area. The wideman was part of a front four which rotated around well and played very effectively thought the night.
Bamford won a free kick which he took himself to poor effect, whilst Lewis Sirrell sliced wide for the visitors at the other end.
Chelsea appeared to be lacking a creative spark and often found Clifford, Boga, Baker and Islam Feruz all looking to play in the same space. Their play was congested and it proved rather easy for Boro to snuff out potential attacks.
Boga forced goalkeeper Conor Ripley (who wasn’t the busiest member of his family this week, according to reports) into a smart save whilst Saville went goal-hunting again; only denied on this occasion by a clearance off the line.
They themselves looked the sharper as the game went on and after Jake Fowler had Blackman scrambling with a shot from well out, they were able to take a late first-half lead.
It came from winger Sirrell, who charged off on a solo run between a number of blue shirts before drilling low into the bottom corner.
As impressive as the virtuoso movement was, the lack of conviction in the tackle was concerning, whilst Blackman was once again found wanting by a finish similar to those scored by Jason Banton and Michael Ngoo in recent weeks.
Drummy made a change at the break, withdrawing the quiet Feruz and handing a first outing in Chelsea colours to Lamisha Musonda, one of three Belgian brothers signed in the summer.
He lined up on the right; a more natural fit in the position than the man he replaced, but it was Middlesbrough who made the better start to the game’s second period. Sirrell had his eyes on glory once again but was denied a second by a solid pair of hands from Blackman.
Perhaps spurred on by words of inspiration or encouragement from their boss during the interval, the hosts began to look something like the team they can be. The ball was moved more purposefully, with a clear direction to their approach, and it was no coincidence that an equaliser followed shortly after.
It was slightly fortuitous that Clifford’s under-hit shot landed at the feet of Bamford, but the former Nottingham Forest man is rarely one to turn down such a clear opening and with one quick flourish of his favoured left foot, the score was 1-1.
He too might have had a second in no time at all, but after fine approach play involving Clifford and Boga, the Chelsea number nine saw his shot saved by Ripley.
The momentum was firmly with the hosts and it seemed almost inevitable that they would go on to add to their tally, which made Charlie Wyke’s goal for the away team such a killer blow.
Uncertain defending in their own box once again led to their downfall as Wyke was presented with a chance to turn and shoot from twelve yards out. He did so with aplomb, leaving Blackman with no chance as he made it 1-2.
Drummy’s immediate response was to give 20 minutes to Daniel Pappoe as planned, the big defender making his first appearance since damaging knee ligaments in January.
Unfortunately, going behind again sincerely knocked the stuffing out of the Blues and they looked short on ideas in the latter stages. Aziz Deen-Conteh’s endeavour and graft on the left was rarely married with an end product, whilst Boga’s attempts to spin his man in tight on the edge of the box proved tricky as he was simply crowded out.
Saville did his best to lift the team with his no-nonsense tackling and sharp distribution from deep but Middlesbrough defended very well and sealed the win minutes from time.
With number up in a counter attack, the signs were ominous from an early stage but it still took a moment of quality to unlock the door, with Matty Watera providing it. He jinked forward, played a one-two with Wyke and stuck the ball past a despairing Blackman to cap a fine night’s work.
On both an individual level and as a team, it was a fully deserved Boro victory. Chelsea didn’t play to their full potential for the third successive fixture and although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why (especially as personnel has remained largely the same), it’s evident that the quality and speed of passing has let them down of late, as have simple defensive errors.
That’s all a part of youth development though, and it’ll surely be a week of constructive training before one of the toughest tests of the season next Friday against Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane (c), Davey (Pappoe 70), Aké, Deen-Conteh, Saville, B.Clifford (Nditi 85), Boga, Baker, Feruz (L. Musonda 45), Bamford
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