A relative back-up Chelsea Under-21 team earned a very pleasing point away to Aston Villa on Monday evening after a 1-1 draw at Villa Park.
Alfie Crooks had given the hosts a first half lead but Milan Lalkovic’s penalty after the break earned a deserved share of the spoils, although it required a late penalty save from Jamal Blackman to preserve them.
For the third game in succession, Dermot Drummy picked an unchanged side, one largely forced upon him by FA Youth Cup commitments. Blackman kept goal behind a back four of Fankaty Dabo, Daniel Pappoe, Dion Conroy and Aziz Deen-Conteh, whilst Musonda brothers Tika and Lamisha joined Isak Ssewankambo and John Swift in midfield.
Schoolboy Connor Hunte retained his place in the side after scoring in each of the last two outings whilst Lalkovic led the line in attack, a relative veteran at the age of 20.
The majority of the Aston Villa team had celebrated victory against the Blues not only nine days ago at Cobham in the reverse league outing, but also in Como on Easter Monday when they won the NextGen Series. That meant a start for lively winger Jack Grealish, who began what was a fine first half performance with the game’s first shot at goal. It was, however, easily dealt with by Blackman.
Chelsea were tentative in their approach early on but grew in confidence after seeing off an early Villa spell of possession and began to play some intricate stuff through the middle before spreading the play wide to athletic full-backs Dabo and Deen-Conteh. A cross from the former found the head of Swift on the penalty spot, but he couldn’t out-muscle Janoi Donacien and saw the chance go begging.
Deen-Conteh, meanwhile, was enjoying the freedom afforded to him by Villa’s right flank and sought to exploit it with regularity. Two very enticing crosses promised much and should have earned a greater reward but on each occasion Swift was a step behind the pace of the ball and couldn’t quite get there.
The hosts took the lead after 25 minutes when Blackman failed to deal successfully with a cross from the left, clattering through a crowd only to punch the ball to the edge of the area, where the prolific young forward Crooks was waiting to dispatch a volley into the open net left by the giant Chelsea stopper.
Blackman redeemed himself somewhat minutes later with a strong save from Daniel Johnson’s well-struck effort, whilst a pair of long-range strikes by midfielder Samir Carruthers went the wrong side of each respective post.
Winger Hunte had Chelsea’s first shot on target with ten minutes left in the first half, drawing an agile stop from Benjamin Siegrist, whilst Swift – who saw yellow along with Villa full-back Lewis Kinsella – spurned a fantastic opportunity for an equaliser with the last touch of the first 45 when he screwed wide from Lalkovic’s excellent cut-back.
Lalkovic had shown graft and endeavour throughout, ploughing a lone furrow up front but running with purpose and belief, only to find fortune against him when the final delivery invariably wound up too short or too long.
Drummy made one change at half time, replacing Tika Musonda with Ismail Seremba in a move designed to get Chelsea on the ball more in deeper areas and inject more pace in the attacking third. Perhaps expectedly, there was a lively start to the second half by the boys in the change black kit, but ultimately little to raise concerns amongst the Villa ranks.
Ten minutes after the resumption of play, however, Deen-Conteh had what appeared to be a stone-wall shout for a penalty fall on flat ears. Having won a last-minute spot-kick against the same opposition in the reverse fixture just under a fortnight ago, he looked to have repeated the trick when felled by Donacien, but nothing was given.
Sixty seconds later though, one was. Lalkovic drew Josh Webb into a tackle the defender should never have made and, perhaps influenced by getting the previous decision wrong, the referee pointed to the spot. The Slovakian picked himself up and having missed with a chipped effort last time out, thumped the ball past Siegrist to make it 1-1.
Being back on terms gave Chelsea a boost in confidence and they played some very patient, progressive stuff in the minutes which followed the goal. Chances were still largely at a premium, although the situation wasn’t helped by Seremba’s curious decision to shoot from range with Lalkovic well-placed for a pass.
Ssewankambo then found himself well-placed to test Siegrist from a central position just inside the box, but he was forced into shooting on his weaker foot and therefore lacked the direction needed to beat the Swiss ‘keeper.
Villa substitute Riccardo Calder was also in the action, shooting low and hard from the edge of the box after some lackadaisical defending by the visitors, but Blackman was equal to it again, making the best save of the night low to his left.
As Gordon Cowans’ side sought to find a second lead, both Chelsea centre-backs Pappoe and Conroy were booked for late tackles on the edge of the area, and Pappoe would then concede a penalty with ten minutes left in the match for what was considered a foul on Derrick Williams but was really just a coming together of two big bodies.
Johnson took the responsibility from twelve yards but his attempts at drawing Blackman into a dive were in vain as the Chelsea number one stood up long enough to read the shot and save it low down to his right.
Blackman intervened twice further before full-time to preserve a point, whilst Seremba might have ensured all three returning to London with the team in stoppage time when he gathered Ssewankambo’s pass and shot, but a deflection took the ball wide and the danger away.
Aston Villa: Siegrist, Webb (Bateman), Williams, Donacien, Kinsella, Stieber, Carruthers, Crooks (Calder), Grealish, Johnson (c), Robinson
Subs not Used: Watkins, Lyden
Chelsea: Blackman, Dabo, Pappoe (c), Conroy, Deen-Conteh, T.Musonda (Seremba), Ssewankambo, L.Musonda, Swift, Hunte (Gnahore), Lalkovic
Subs not Used: Mark Beeney, Bangura
Goals: Crooks (AVFC), Lalkovic ‘pen (CFC)
Booked: Kinsella (AVFC), Swift, Pappoe, Conroy (CFC)