Chelsea’s Under-21s continued their fine spate of recent form with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge on Friday night.
In a topsy-turvy game with multiple lead changes, Scottish forward Islam Feruz proved decisive with a brace for Dermot Drummy’s side, whilst Lewis Baker converted a penalty in between. Boro had taken the lead through Ryan Brobbel and levelled later when Luke Williams struck but despite probably deserving a share of the spoils, they left empty-handed.
With Sunday’s first team FA Cup tie at Brenford looming and a number of unavailable names affecting squad depth, there was a keener than usual interest in Drummy’s matchday selections for this clash. Dutch defender Nathan Aké was absent altogether with a place on the bench at Griffin Park almost certain, but there were starts for George Saville, Milan Lalkovic, Andreas Christensen and Islam Feruz as usual.
Jamal Blackman returned in goal with Sam Walker having gone back out on loan whilst there was also a first competitive start at this level for Alex Kiwomya. Middlesbrough’s team featured a host of youngsters with a smattering of first team experience but also the considerable presence of Mustapha Carayol, who was getting much-needed match time after injury.
The hosts had the first chance of note when the lively Feruz made a now near-trademark run between centre-back and left back to meet a through ball, but his shot on the turn skidded just wide of Conor Ripley’s right-hand post.
The three in Chelsea’s midfield – captain Saville, Baker, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (who signed professional terms this week) – rotated around rather freely in a bid to create space and confusion amongst the Boro defenders. Their interplay and exchanges were tidy and effective in the opening stages, but the finishing was wayward as Loftus-Cheek twice demonstrated from the edge of the box.
A free kick from Williams which went just over got the away team going and they were certainly giving as good as they got in the first half, competing throughout and holding a very solid and disciplined shape. They sought to make good of Carayol and Brobbel out wide and use Williams’ explosiveness through the middle, and did so to good effect. First-year scholar Bryn Morris had their next chance, arriving on cue to strike from the edge of the box, but he saw his effort blocked by Andreas Christensen.
Baker then dragged one awkwardly wide before Ripley had to make the first real save of the night, doing so excellently to get down and tip Kiwomya’s accurate shot away from the bottom corner.
It proved to be an important save as Boro countered from the resulting corner and took the lead. Carayol bested Lalkovic for strength in a coming together outside the Chelsea box and then took off for goal with little but green ahead of him. The home defenders sprinted back urgently but couldn’t quite catch up and the Gambian slid a ball across the face of goal for Brobbel to tap home.
The next two minutes of action were as frenetic as they were dramatic, for instead of Boro going two goals ahead, Chelsea levelled the scores at 1-1. Adam Nditi showed incredible agility to clear a Carayol shot from his own line, and the clearance launched a counter attack. Baker released Feruz in a similar position to his early chance, and this time the number nine got his angles correct and found the corner with precision.
Williams and Lalkovic had good moments before the half time whistle went to end a quality first half of football. The game resumed with a Chelsea substitution, as Daniel Pappoe made his return from the latest of an unfortunate number of injuries. Tika Musonda was withdrawn, and Christensen moved to right-back to accommodate the returnee.
Baker, who had been his effervescent, influential self in the opening 45 minutes, had an early opportunity to add his name to the scoresheet in the second period, but when presented with a chance from the edge of the area he couldn’t curl his shot properly and missed the target completely.
At the other end, Morris continued to impress and created a chance all by himself with a jinking run that lacked the finish to match. It was a night where pretty much anyone on the pitch could have made a decisive play, and so it proved a few minutes later.
Nditi found himself in an advanced position after a good run and cut his way into the area in front of the Shed End. He appeared to have run out of puff and lost control of the ball but as Brobbel came in to clear, he got a toe to the ball and fell down under the challenge. The penalty was awarded, perhaps harshly, but Baker strode up confidently to do what he usually does from the spot and scored to make it 2-1.
Whereas it was the hosts responding to a Boro goal immediately in the first half, the reverse very nearly came true this time around. Williams got into yet another good position but was unable to ask a question of Blackman as his shot became the latest to miss the target.
He finally got it right just shy of the hour mark though, but it owed something to Alex Davey in the Chelsea defence. His attempted ball across the face of his own back four was intercepted by Brobbel, who took advantage of the space provided to slip Williams in, and the finish was both instant and perfect.
With the game level at 2-2, changes aplenty followed as both managers looked to introduce fresh legs in hope of making something happen. Boro replaced Carayol and Brobbel with Matty Waters and Jordan Jones, whilst Drummy threw Jeremie Boga and later John Swift into the action.
Boga proved effective enough to go on a couple of enterprising runs but, as is typical of him at this stage, he held onto the ball too long and ignored opportunities to shoot. Saville was less selective, thundering over when the ball fell to him from a poor clearance, but he was off balance and under heavy attention from Kyle Oliver.
A flurry of bookings arrived as both teams played closer to the edge in search of a winner, whilst Davey and Curtis Main went close to adding the game’s fifth goal. Lalkovic then set off on a staggeringly breathtaking run in which he beat four or five players but couldn’t find the finish, and Nditi then saw his close-range strike smothered by Ripley.
The best of the latter-stage chances were falling to the hosts and it seemed they would be the most likely winner, and although it proved so, the decisive strike was an unusual one. Feruz, finding himself 25 yards from goal, chanced his arm with a low, bouncing effort, the sort which most goalkeepers find relatively simple to deal with. Yet something along the way deceived Ripley, who found himself off balance and unable to gather the ball. He got a hand to it but was only able to watch it squirm loose and trickle into the net.
Boro boss Jamie Clapham threw on forward Wilson Kneeshaw and went for broke, and in stoppage time it almost worked. Chelsea struggled to clear their lines and it resulted in a chance for the newcomer, but Blackman made his best save of the night, beating away a fierce strike, and his defenders helped him out by blocking Morris’ follow-up attempt. The corner came to nothing and Chelsea were able to celebrate a second 3-2 win over this opposition this season.
Drummy’s troops now have six wins and a draw to show from their last seven games, the sort of form which will stand them in good stead if they are to make good on outside hopes of a national title. Weather-permitting, they are next in action at home to Sunderland on Sunday February 3rd, at Cobham, behind closed doors.
Chelsea: Blackman, T.Musonda (Pappoe 45), Davey, Christensen, Nditi, Saville (c), Loftus-Cheek (Boga 60), Baker, Kiwomya (Swift 75), Lalkovic, Feruz
Subs not Used: Beeney, Conroy
Goals: Feruz ’34, ’85, Baker ’51 pen
Booked: Feruz, Saville, Lalkovic
Middlesbrough: Ripley, Bennett, Burgess (c), Jackson, Weldon, Oliver (Kneeshaw 86), Morris, Carayol (Waters 60), Brobbel (Jones), L.Williams, Main
Subs not Used: Montgomery, Edwards
Goals: Brobbel ’32, L.Williams ‘56