It won’t be remembered as a classic youth team affair but Chelsea’s Under-18s got their 2014 off to a winning start on Saturday morning with a 2-1 victory over Norwich City at Cobham.
In a fractious affair in which both sides exhibited all the signs of rustiness borne of three weeks away from the pitch, Dominic Solanke struck twice – his seventh and eight goals in his last three outings – to seal three more points for Adi Viveash’s boys.
Viveash had a relatively fresh and healthy pool of players available to him for the first action of the new year, and picked Brad Collins in goal behind a back four comprising captain Jonathan Muleba, George Brady, Dion Conroy and Ola Aina. Despite them regularly lining up the other way around for most of the season so far, Muleba was on the right, with Aina slotting in on the left.
Mukhtar Ali and Charlie Colkett joined forces in the middle of the park, with Kasey Palmer afforded the number ten role ahead of them. George Cole and Chike Kandi flanked Solanke in attack, whilst in opposition yellow Norwich featured two former members of the Chelsea academy: goalkeeper Ben Killip and defender Reiss Awuah.
The pace was slow and the game riddled with sloppy mistakes early on as both sides felt their way back into competitive football, not aided by the heavy pitch bearing the effects of heavy recent rain. It wasn’t until the quarter hour mark that a shot was had, and even then Ray Grant’s effort was routinely gathered by Collins.
Chelsea controlled the possession, as they tend to do, but struggled to go anywhere with it. Palmer had a sight of goal blocked by a timely intervention by Awuah, and Solanke almost latched onto one or two through balls, but for the most part the two sides exchanged the ball with misplaced passes throughout the first half.
Even the game’s first goal came through the inadvertent product of a mistake. Kandi was released down the right and got the better of full back Ben Wyatt in a test of strength, but as he got into the box he panicked a little and smashed a hopeful delivery in the general direction of the goal. As luck would have it, Solanke collided with the yellow missile and bundled the ball past Killip and over the line to seize the lead after 33 minutes.
With several sturdily built young men on either side, there was always a combative element to proceedings but it threatened to become more than feisty before the break when Ali chopped Harrison Heath down from behind. A melee ensued with the usual football handbags, but referee Andrey Laschikov defuses things with a booking for Ali and a calming of tempers around him.
Defender Conroy was withdrawn at the break with Jordan Houghton replacing him, whilst Norwich introduced the leggy Michee Efete. Chances came quickly at either end, with Palmer dragging wide after good work by Muleba, and Solanke denied a second by a smothering Killip save. The Canaries’ threat was carried by Rhys Browne, who got the better of Brady before stinging the hands of Collins at the near post.
More changes followers, most notably the arrival of Charly Musonda, but the lead remained slender despite the best efforts of Cole direct from a set piece and Houghton from a corner.
With a little more than fifteen minutes left, Norwich grabbed the equalising goal they so craved. A momentary defensive lapse allowed top scorer Jamie Eaton-Collins to escape clear on goal, and he slotted it into the bottom corner to make it 1-1.
Reece Mitchell was immediately thrown on by Viveash for an attacking hurrah to end the match and his young charges rewarded him by regaining the advantage less than five minutes later. It came about in similar fashion to their first strike, but this time it was Cole with a more deliberate strike probably destined for the bottom corner, but Solanke made sure by prodding home from a yard out to make it fifteen for him this campaign.
Kandi might have added undeserved gloss to the scoreline late on, and Norwich were unable to muster up another response, leaving their frustrations for all to see as the final whistle saw the game’s second skirmish. Chelsea will have prettier victories, but they just about worked harder for the win and remain well placed in the academy league table.
Chelsea: Collins, Muleba, Brady, Conroy (Houghton), Aina, Colkett (Musonda), Ali (Mitchell), Kandi, Cole, Solanke
Subs not Used: Thompson, Gnahore
Norwich: Collins, Norman, Lokko, Awuah, Wyatt, Hodd, Randall (Efete), Grant, Heath (Byrne-Hewitt), Browne, Eaton-Collins