Chelsea’s Under-21s got their season up and running with a highly impressive 4-1 victory away to Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium on Friday night.
It was a game of set-pieces as the hosts took an early lead through an Omar Rowe free-kick but Man of the Match Lewis Baker provided a dead-ball equaliser for Alex Davey before Isaiah Brown gave the Blues the lead with his second in as many games.
Baker added a direct free-kick strike of his own in the second half before substitute Islam Feruz put the seal on things late on with a stupendous long-range strike to earn a first win of the campaign.
Dermot Drummy made five changes to the team which so disappointed him in defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur last week, bringing Jamal Blackman in for Mitchell Beeney in goal and drafting Davey and Ssewankambo into the back four with Nathaniel Chalobah injured and Kevin Wright reportedly suspended. Ssewankambo played at right-back, with Andreas Christensen moving inside to join Davey, and captain Nathan Aké deputising at left-back
Lamisha Musonda replaced the injured Josh McEachran in midfield, whilst Lewis Baker resumed his duties in the middle as John Swift dropped to the bench. Musonda and Alex Kiwomya manned the flanks whilst Jeremie Boga slotted in behind Brown in attack.
Southampton, who beat Liverpool 4-3 in their opening fixture, welcomed Cody Cropper and Jordan Turnbull back into the fold after international duty, and included Lloyd Isgrove from the off after a pre-season spent with the first team. Lively forwards Rowe and Jake Sinclair – younger brother of former Chelsea player Scott – linked up in attack whilst Isgrove and Corby Moore took care of the creative play behind them.
The visitors enjoyed a lot of early possession without going anywhere, although sharp play by Baker threatened to release Brown only for Cropper to intervene, but it was Boga who had the first shot in anger as he displayed his trademark agility to fashion a shooting opportunity which forced Southampton’s American goalkeeper into a low left-handed save.
Rowe’s opener after ten minutes therefore came as something of a surprise and against the run of play. Aké conceded a free-kick for a clumsy foul on Isgrove on the edge of the box and whilst the shot was struck cleanly, it lacked pace and accuracy. Nonetheless, the presence of bodies in front of Blackman distracted him, and the ball found the back of the net in a rather tame manner.
The goal signalled the start of the hosts’ best and indeed only real spell of dominance in the opening forty-five minutes. A slick move started by left-back Matt Targett saw Rowe, Moore and Isgrove combine to work a chance for Sinclair, but he curled his shot wide when presented with the opportunity.
As is so often the case, Baker provided the spark which saw Chelsea get back on terms. A driven delivery into the box on his right foot saw Loftus-Cheek test Cropper again, but moments later his devilish left-footed in-swinger of a dead ball found the head of Davey, who had made a great run and merely needed to flick the ball home.
Parity turned into blue dominance thereafter, and whilst Kiwomya spurned two openings of decent quality, the game’s third goal went to the away team and was an early contender for goal of the season. In the space of less than twenty seconds they went from Blackman being under pressure receiving a backpass to Brown heading home at the far post to meet Kiwomya’s floated cross. In that time, they passed their way out of trouble with the ball never leaving the floor until it parted with Kiwomya’s boot. It was a goal of sublime quality and one which will doubtless be replayed over and over this season.
Disappointingly, a first half which had gone so well the longer it went on ended on a sour note as a poor tackle by Harrison Reed from behind on Boga saw the Frenchman leave the pitch with an ankle injury. Feruz came on in his stead.
Had Isgrove’s industrious start to the second half been rewarded with a sprinkling of luck then Southampton might have been on terms, but he first saw a low shot saved before watching as his cross eluded Sinclair and Jake Flannigan seconds later. They would rue their lack of fortune even more ten minutes into the second period when Rowe smashed his effort against the foot of the post, with the rebound falling to a Chelsea shirt.
Perhaps in a bid to re-assert their hold on the game, Drummy introduced the tenacious and ever-willing Swift in relief of a tiring Loftus-Cheek just before the hour mark. He immediately got into the pace of the game and helped take the sting out of things, at which point home manager Martin Hunter introduced Ryan Seager, scorer of 19 academy league goals last season, for Isgrove.
The midway mark of the second half therefore looked to be a pivotal time in a close fixture but Baker took it upon himself to decide affairs. Kiwomya earned a free-kick from Targett (who joined team-mates Reed and Turnbull in having his name taken by the referee) wide on the right, and having already provided one goal from a similar position, the Chelsea schemer did it all himself this time around, whipping the delivery into the top corner, giving Cropper no chance.
With the game over as a contest, Southampton couldn’t muster the effort to mount what would have been a considerable comeback effort, whilst the Blues began to wind down and kept the ball, securing the result. They capped a fantastic night of action in the final minutes when Feruz lashed in from 30 yards, finding the top corner with an effort of exquisite technique after he had initially taken on centre-backs Turnbull and Stephens.
Up until that point it had been a frustrating evening for the Scottish Under-21 forward, who after starting on the bench had been deployed in an unfamiliar role deeper behind Brown, but he stuck to his task doggedly and was rewarded in fine style, sealing a 4-1 win for his team and putting up their first points of the season.
Chelsea: Blackman, Ssewankambo, Davey, Christensen, Aké (c), Baker, Loftus-Cheek (Swift 57), Boga (Feruz 45), Kiwomya, L. Musonda, Brown
Subs not Used: Beeney, Conroy, Dabo
Southampton: Cropper, Young, Turnbull, Stephens (c), Targett, Reed, Flannigan, Isgrove (Seager 65), Moore, Rowe, Sinclair
Subs not Used: Johns, Colmer, Branker, McCarthy
Goals: Rowe ‘15, Davey ’22, Brown ’28, Baker ’68, Feruz ‘87
Booked: Reed, Turnbull, Targett (Southampton)