In a season where many of Chelsea’s marquee loan faces have stolen the headlines with regularity, it’s a nice change of pace this week to shine the spotlight on a couple of youngsters playing in the lower leagues and having a majorly positive effect on their team’s fortunes.
Billy Clifford and Sam Walker both joined Colchester United during the January transfer window with the Essex club toiling in relegation strife at the bottom of League One. They had suffered nine successive defeats and had a lot to do to turn their season around.
This week they picked up a pair of 2-0 wins against playoff-chasing Yeovil Town and mid-table Stevenage, and as a result have emerged from the drop zone. Clifford grabbed his first goal in professional football in the first outing, slamming into the top corner from 25 yards in stupendous fashion, whilst he claimed a second assist in three games by swinging in a free kick for Jabo Ibehre to score the first of his two goals against Stevenage.
Whilst Clifford’s contributions have been evident on the scoresheet, Walker too has been largely superb in goal and at the second time of asking appears to be finally making his mark at this level. He spent the first half of this season down a division with Bristol Rovers, playing behind a woeful defence, but has looked the part amongst his Colchester colleagues and has four clean sheets in eight games.
Fellow League One loanee Patrick Bamford remains short of match fitness at MK Dons, and it’s likely that he won’t be able to take part in a matchday squad for them until the end of March.
Romelu Lukaku was precluded from taking part in West Brom’s weekend fixture as it was against his parent club at Stamford Bridge, which was the same reason for Josh McEachran’s midweek absence when his Middlesbrough team hosted Chelsea in the FA Cup.
McEachran did, however, return to the starting eleven on Saturday when Boro turned in a big performance to beat table-topping Cardiff City 2-1 at the Riverside Stadium. Having celebrated his 20th birthday in midweek, he continues to earn regular playing time at a crucial part of the season and is in increasingly better form, which he’ll need to maintain if Tony Mowbray’s side are to stay in the fight for a playoff place.
Nathaniel Chalobah and Watford are very much setting their sights on automatic promotion however, and despite dropping two points on Friday night in a draw at Wolves, they’re going about that very well. Chalobah got 80 or so minutes at Molineux and as the season has gone on he has looked more and more at ease in England’s second tier. He will be a big player for them during the run-in.
The Hornets also tried to take Nathan Aké on loan this week to ease their defensive injury crisis but Chelsea Interim Manager Rafael Benitez blocked the move.
Sam Hutchinson returned to Nottingham Forest this week some six months after he last played for the Reds during his loan spell. Manager Billy Davies has indicated that he will need to be carefully managed before he’s available to play but with Forest back in the race for a top six place, they could have quite the late season addition.
A fourth English Chelsea youngster joined the Championship ranks this week when George Saville headed to Millwall until the end of the season. The combative midfielder made his debut in the senior game as an 84th minute substitute away to Leeds United on Saturday and should get a decent experience at The Den.
In Spain, there was midweek action for Thibaut Courtois and Atletico Madrid as they edged a chaotic Copa del Rey Semi Final against Sevilla 4-3 on aggregate. Their 2-2 draw away to their southern opponents on Wednesday night sets up a Final derby against Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid as Courtois seeks a second trophy in as many seasons at the club.
His weekend date kept him and his team in Andalusia as they went up against Lucas Piazón and Málaga. Unfortunately, the match was terrible and lacked in any real notable goalmouth action, with the highlight being the Belgian saving the Brazilian’s header in the first half. At least both played 90 minutes and in Piazón’s case, probably earned more playing time under Manuel Pellegrini.
Ulises Dávila continued on the bench for second division Sabadell after hand surgery away to CD Guadalajara and only saw five minutes in a cameo during their 1-1 draw.
In the third tier of Spanish football, Jhon Pírez netted his first goal of the season for Leganés in a 2-0 win over Marino de Luanco which keeps their promotion bid firmly intact. The Uruguan had missed most of the season through injury but has been fit for a month now and notched his first goal of the campaign four minutes from time having only just come on as a sub.
In Belgium, Thorgan Hazard and Zulte Waregem produced their best result of the season to date in midweek when they travelled to runaway leaders Anderlecht and won 1-0 despite missing two key players. The Chelsea man had a big part in the winning goal, playing a cutting pass in behind for Jens Naessens to cut back across for Franck Berrier to tuck home, reducing the host’s lead atop the Jupiler League to just five points.
With it being a cup weekend in Belgium and with Essevee already out, they were able to fulfil a league date against Charleroi with the chance of going within two points of the top and really turning up the heat in the title race. With two minutes left on the clock, the younger Hazard once again had his say, whipping in a corner which was nodded home by Mbeye Leye to take another vital three points.
In Germany, Kevin De Bruyne started as usual but Werder Bremen were infuriatingly inconsistent as usual and went down 1-0 at home to Augsburg in a forgettable affair. Jeffrey Bruma, meanwhile, saw two minutes as a time-wasting sub for Hamburg in a 1-1 draw at home to Greuther Furth.
In the Netherlands, Vitesse moved up to third on Friday night with a routine 2-0 win at home to FC Utrecht in an emotional match for all at the club, coming just a day after long-serving former defender and manager Theo Bos had died at the age of just 47.
Tomas Kalas and Patrick van Aanholt continued in defence whilst there was a welcome return for Gael Kakuta in attack after two games out through injury. They all played 90 minutes and like so many of Chelsea’s loanees, there is plenty left to fight for in the final three months of the season as they seek Champions League qualification.
Kenneth Omeruo played the full match for ADO Den Haag as they beat Heracles 3-1 to move into the top half of the table, whilst Amin Affane was left out of Roda’s squad again due to attitude issues first mentioned in last week’s Loan Report.
Matej Delac and Inter Zapresic continue to struggle in the Croatian league, going a third game without victory since the resumption of their campain after losing 2-1 at home to NK Zagreb. The young goalkeeper is however at least playing, and he’s playing fairly well too.
Brazilian full-back Wallace continued his recent absence for Fluminense, who have not given a public reason for leaving him out but the rumour mill in Brazil appears to suggest that it could well be that they don’t want to give playing time to a player who will be leaving them in August. If that is indeed the case, it’s hardly an ideal circumstance for Chelsea, and they will have to look to address the situation to make the best of it.
Finally, there was also no action for Cristian Cuevas either this week as his O’Higgins team beat Franco Di Santo’s old club Audax Italiano 3-1 on Saturday night. Given his age (17) and relative lack of experience, he isn’t likely to see that much time before leaving for England in a few months.