Chelsea maintained their 100% record in the UEFA Youth League and booked their place in the knockout rounds early next year after beating Schalke 1-0 at Aldershot’s Electrical Services Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
In a game which lacked a great deal of quality for large chunks, it was a moment of genuine brilliance that decided things as Lewis Baker’s free kick early in the first half proved enough to take all three points for the young Blues, who are the only team remaining in the competition with a perfect record through four games.
Dermot Drummy made two changes from the team which started Friday’s Under-21 league clash with West Ham as Andreas Christensen and Isaiah Brown returned in the place of Kenneth Omeruo and John Swift. Mitchell Beeney kept goal whilst Christensen was joined in the back four by Fankaty Dabo, Kevin Wright and captain Nathan Aké.
Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek occupied the central midfield berths as usual, with Jeremie Boga lined up ahead of them in an advanced role. Brown and Alex Kiwomya started wide of Islam Feruz in a formidable-looking line-up.
A hallmark of Schalke’s play in the reverse fixture in Germany a fortnight ago was their energetic and committed pressing game and whilst they didn’t quite hit the same heights early on at Aldershot, they did try to make life hard for the Chelsea back four in the early stages. Danish centre-back Christensen however – returning to the team after being rested last week – was sharp and alert to repeatedly snuff out any danger posed by the opposition.
Chances were few and far between, with Chelsea enjoying the lion’s share of possession yet struggling to go anywhere with it. Feruz worked hard up top and the Blues recycled the ball well, but it took a moment of inspiration to break the deadlock shortly after a quarter of an hour had been played. From a dead ball 25 yards out and almost dead central to the goal, Baker stepped up and clipped an inch-perfect shot over the wall and into the top corner. It came with his ‘weaker’ left foot; something regular followers of the Blues’ youngsters are accustomed to seeing by now.
The lead could and perhaps should have been doubled shortly after when Brown was the recipient of a wayward cross-field pass by Sebastian Starke Hedlund and found himself with plenty of space ahead, but an attempted ball to release Feruz was poor and let Schalke off the hook.
For their part, the visitors drew Beeney into action ten minutes before half time when Miles Mueller crashed a fierce shot from 30 yards towards goal, but otherwise they could only count a sliced late effort by skipper Pascal Itter to their work for the opening 45 minutes as Chelsea went in one goal to the good.
With little change in the flow of the game after ten second half minutes, Drummy was the first of the two managers to freshen things up as he introduced schoolboy forward Dominic Solanke in place of Feruz and second-year winger Ambrose Gnahore for Brown. Schalke responded by bringing Hendrik Lohmar on for Maurice Multhaup and might have been level on the hour mark when Beeney mistakenly passed straight to the feet of Leroy Sané, but the goalkeeper was able to make amends by saving well at his near post.
A better chance fell the way of Thilo Kehrer when he arrived in good time to meet a cross by Adis Omerbasic, but his header was straight at the grateful Beeney. It came right in the middle of Schalke’s best spell of the game but they were unable to take advantage of their brief superiority and the hosts were able to re-assert themselves in the last twenty minutes.
Substitute Solanke had a fine chance to put clear daylight between the two sides when presented with the ball eight yards from goal moments after Gnahore’s shot had been blocked, but he rather snatched at it and tried to blast the ball past Wellenreuther when a more composed finish might have been the order of the day.
Muller and Kehrer again had sights of goal but neither were remotely as good as the opportunity Boga had to seal the deal fifteen minutes from time. Kiwomya roasted full-back Neubauer for pace down the Chelsea right and served up a veritable tap-in for the Frenchman, but he contrived to shoot over the crossbar from no more than six yards out.
Prolific German youth international forward Donis Avdijaj entered the fray for the final quarter of an hour and will have been disappointed with his tame effort five minutes after arriving on the field; a low shot which lacked conviction allowed Beeney to make a comfortable save. With Schalke pressing the issue again, Drummy used his last substitution to add some strength and aerial presence to his defence in the form of Dion Conroy. Loftus-Cheek made way, and Aké stepped up into midfield in the resulting reshuffle.
Avdijaj then wasted a gilt-edged, last-gasp chance in the 94th minute, forcing Beeney into a smart save in the fourth minute of stoppage time after good work by Sané. Much of their approach play, particularly in the second half, had been impressive, but they lacked a cutting edge in front of goal and two or three good saves by Beeney denied their best moments.
It will not go down as one of Chelsea’s classic performances at this level but the result was secured in a relatively professional manner and Drummy can now look forward to handing opportunities to some of the younger members of his squad in the final two group fixtures away to Basel and at home to Steaua Bucharest.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Christensen, Aké (c), Wright, Baker, Loftus-Cheek (Conroy 80), Boga, Kiwomya, Brown Gnahore 56), Feruz (Solanke 54)
Subs not Used: Collins, Aina, Muleba
Schalke: Wellenreuther, Koseler, Neubauer, Starke Hedlund, Freidrich, Itter (c), Kehrer (Avdijaj 75), Mueller, Omerbasic (Pick 68), S.Sané, Multhaup (Lohmar 59)
Subs not Used: Schilder, Feser, Tomasello, Bodenröder
Goals: Baker (Chelsea)
Booked: Itter (Schalke)