Chelsea’s Under-21 team went into Monday night’s Barclays Under-21 Premier League schedule with their eyes set firmly on a place in the Elite Group Stage after Christmas. They held up their end of the bargain in beating Middlesbrough 3-2, but events elsewhere conspired against them as Wolves beat Manchester City 2-1 to take second place and leave the Blues hoping for even more help if they are to make it in.
Despite many of them having played little more than 48 hours earlier in the FA Youth Cup against Colchester United, it was a relatively familiar-looking line-up sent out into the Riverside Stadium cold, with Alex Davey, Nathan Aké, Lewis Baker and Islam Feruz all pulling double time. Lucas Piazon returned to the fold having missed out against Fulham last time out, whilst there were opportunities for Samuel Bangura and Andreas Christensen in defence.
The two teams exchanged early chances with Feruz drawing a save from Conor Ripley in the home goal whilst Scottish youth international Cameron Park sent an effort wide of Jamal Blackman’s goal at the other end. Luke Williams drew the big stopper into his first save minutes later but there was nothing Boro could do when Chelsea took the lead midway through the first half.
The goal came courtesy of a glorious free kick from Billy Clifford. It was a deserved lead, and the schemer’s second goal of the season was swiftly added to by another impressive young playmaker in Lewis Baker, who got on the end of a mazy run by Piazon to slide home his sixth goal of the season and third of a very successful week.
When Alex Davey added a third shortly after the half time break it looked like job done for Chelsea, but Ryan Brobbel’s powerful low effort in immediate response reduced the arrears and doubtless sharpened the focus amongst the visitors.
News from elsewhere arrived that Manchester City had restored parity at Telford through Luca Scapuzzi, having gone behind to a first minute Wolves opener, meaning that as results stood, the Blues would be advancing into the Elite Group as hoped.
Yet football is nothing without drama and within moments back at the Riverside, a combination of Christian Burgess and Kyle Oliver scrambled the ball home following a corner to close the deficit to just one goal.
Williams and Matty Dolan both produced moments of interest without really worrying Blackman whilst Clifford came within inches of grabbing his second of the game and Chelsea’s fourth of the night as the game ticked ever closer to its conclusion.
In the last five minutes though, there was to be heartbreak for the Blues as news from a couple of hundred miles south filtered through in the form of a Liam McAlinden goal for Wolves. There was still enough time for a potential reprieve as Man City earned a stoppage time penalty, but they were unable to convert it and Wolves were able to hold on to secure a 2-1 victory and a berth in the Elite Group Stage.
Chelsea will now likely have to settle for a spot in the Tier 1 Group along with teams finishing fourth and fifth in their groups, a fate largely determined by a poor start to their season. They could still finish as a best third-placed side, but remaining fixtures to be played in Group 2 are likely to result in another team taking that particular honour. Their best chance will come if Aston Villa beat Manchester United next week, but Southampton are also in position to take over with a win in their last game.
They also retain a chance at winning the national title as the competition structure allows for the winners of each of the non-Elite groups to play off for a place in the national Semi Finals against a Group 1 opponent.
However, tonight’s result was a sixth league match unbeaten for Drummy’s youngsters, particularly impressive coming at a time when the team has been subject to a great deal of upheaval. It is their best such run since the 2010-11 season, when they were crowned national reserve league champions, and it promises positive signs for the second half of this season.
Chelsea: Blackman, Bangura (Ashton 80), Ince, Davey, Christensen, Aké, Saville, B.Clifford, Baker, Piazon (Pappoe 89), Feruz (Coombes 63)
Subs not Used: Beeney, Musonda