Chelsea remain unbeaten in Elite Under-18 competition after coming back from a goal down to earn a 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United on Saturday.
Both teams qualified for the top eight in impressive fashion and so it was always likely to be a high-quality clash. Despite freezing cold weather, fierce winds and a bog of a pitch the two sides put on a good show and although Jack Rudge had given the visitors the lead, Jesse Starkey’s free kick gave the Blues a deserved share of the spoils.
Adi Viveash had fewer options available to him than he has for most of the season, with Jordan Houghton out for the season and a number of others involved for the Under-21s more regularly. He was however able to call on the services of John Swift and Jeremie Boga, whilst there were also starts for Jon Muleba and Tom Howard.
United started the match well and carried themselves with an air of confidence and professionalism underlined by the club’s stellar record of youth development. Belgian forward Andreas Pereira was the first to try his luck at goal but found Mitchell Beeney more than equal to his effort.
Beeney’s opposite number Jonny Sutherland was soon called into action himself as the lively Boga glided through tackles and unleashed a shot destined for the top corner, only to be denied by a strong hand and a fine save.
Boga would again be denied by the visiting stopper with a far post volley and although Swift had a goal ruled out for offside, Chelsea looked increasingly threatening.
The reds were largely being restricted to long shots, but with neither Jack Barmby or Joe Rothwell able to find their range, Beeney’s toughest task was dealing with a number of awkward backpasses caused by a relentless pressing game in the United midfield.
Their hard work eventually yielded a reward with ten minutes left in the first half as they grabbed the lead. Pereira won the ball and looked to drive his way into the box, but found his path blocked. The ball bounced around and landed invitingly at the feet of Rudge, who finished well.
Chelsea might have felt hard done by to be behind but they weren’t to be for long and equalised in first half stoppage time. Howard won a free kick right on the edge of the box, and free kick expert Starkey bent it around the wall, past Ben Pearson (who had stood in place expecting such an effort) and beyond Sutherland’s reach.
A swift turnaround at the break allowed for the frenetic pace and attritional battle to continue unabated in the second half, which in turn set the stage for the referee to become the centre of attention.
Having already booked Swift, Isak Ssewankambo and Barmby in the first half – more cards than are dished out in many Under-18 games – he and his officiating colleagues began to make increasingly questionable decisions which would increase in their importance as the game wore on.
The first big talking point came when Boga found himself bearing down on Sutherland just before the hour mark. He was under the considerable attentions of a defender, who had an ample chunk of blue shirt within his grasp. Instead of blowing for a penalty though, the referee allowed for the game to carry on and for Boga to scoop over when he might have done better.
The hosts then had a penalty shout denied as Donald Love was deemed to have handled the ball right on the line of the edge of the area despite standing well inside when the incident occurred. Boga was unable to follow Starkey’s lead with the dead ball, whipping his try over the bar.
Real chances were at a premium and it was typically from set pieces that anyone came close at all. Swift hit a long one with the instep technique favoured by so many in the game, but saw the ball dip too late to find the target. United, meanwhile, were ambitious in their midfield endeavours but found Pereira well shackled up front, and the Belgian was eventually substituted cutting a frustrated figure.
Viveash too dipped into his reserves, giving Ola Aina and Dom Solanke cameo outings; the latter making his Under-18 debut. Aina’s arrival for the quiet but hard working forward Chike Kandi allowed for Fankaty Dabo to move into attack moments after he had gone on a great run which came up short at the last, but Dabo himself made way for the Under-15 Solanke.
In the final moments of the game, the man in black once again became the focus of affairs. United broke into considerable space and despite their forward looking to be offside as he ran clear, play continued until Aina fouled him at the decisive moment.
A red card followed for a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity but more than that, the offence looked to have clearly taken place well inside the box. Like Chelsea’s shout earlier though, only a free kick was awarded, and it came to nothing.
A frantic stoppage time saw Chelsea defending for their lives but thanks to the work of monumental man of the match Jon Muleba and makeshift right back Howard, they were able to see the game out and take a well-earned point from a very good game of football overall.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo (Solanke 85), Muleba, Ssewankambo, Wright, Starkey, Swift (c), Boga, Howard, Mitchell, Kandi (Aina 75)
Sub not Used: Killip
Goal: Starkey 45
Booked: Swift, Ssewankambo
Sent Off: Aina
Man Utd: Sutherland, Love, McNair, Grimshaw (c), Rowley, Pearson, Rudge, Rothwell, Weir, Barmby, Pereira (subbed)
Goal: Rudge 37