Chelsea booked their place in the last eight of the first ever Barclays Premier League Under-21 Cup on Monday evening with a well-deserved 2-1 victory over West Ham United.
Isaiah Brown gave them the lead early on and whilst Mitchell Beeney was the unfortunate victim of a freak own goal, Nathan Aké restored a lead which Dermot Drummy’s charges were never to give up. They might have added considerably more to their tally but profligacy in front of goal ensured a narrow representation of a result they more than earned.
With a league fixture at home to Reading on Friday evening, Drummy once again used the cup to rotate his squad a little, and it meant the complete absence of regular faces Kevin Wright, Alex Kiwomya and Islam Feruz. Beeney kept goal behind a defence of Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and Adam Nditi, whilst Aké joined Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the two-man central midfield.
Baker, fresh from a first team debut a little more than 24 hours earlier, was afforded a more attacking role in the number ten shirt between John Swift and Jeremie Boga, whilst Brown led the line a day before his seventeenth birthday.
West Ham’s numbers were heavily depleted following Sam Allardyce’s decision to field a fledgling FA Cup team at Nottingham Forest, meaning no fewer than seven of the starting eleven were making their Under-21 debuts. Amongst those taking to the wet Aldershot pitch were youth team leading goalscorer Kieran Bywater and ex-Arsenal forward Jordan Brown.
Chelsea made light work of the less than favourable weather conditions and might’ve been ahead inside three minutes. Baker displayed his set piece prowess yet again with a fantastic try from just short of thirty yards out but was denied a goal by an excellent save from goalkeeper Sam Howes, who tipped the ball onto the post.
Beeney made his first save at the other end shortly after, beating away Bywater’s near-post strike, but it was merely delaying the inevitable and the Blues went ahead inside ten minutes. Baker again affected the play and delivered a through ball to Brown, who gathered it and beat his man before rifling the ball through Howes and into the back of the net.
However, the Hammers would find themselves on terms before very long with a goal that owed everything to fortune and circumstance. Right-back Jerry Amoo did well in an advanced area and drove a low cross towards goal, but as the ball flicked off the outstretched leg of Nditi, it diverted and caught Beeney off balance; hitting him on the hand and bouncing into the net.
Davey thought he had restored the advantage midway through the first half when he produced an excellent turn and volley to lash home a loose ball following a corner, but he was correctly adjudged to have been in an offside position. Where he was frustrated though, Aké succeeded, as he strode forward imperiously to gallop onto Loftus-Cheek’s slide-rule pass before clipping his shot into the far corner with confidence.
Retaining possession against a youthful and inexperienced opposition, Chelsea controlled proceedings and might have extended the lead further before half time. Boga exchanged passes with Baker beautifully, receiving a lovely backheeled return ball, but shot straight at Howes, and both he and Loftus-Cheek had good moments from inside the six yard box fail to materialise into something rewarding.
A pair of Nditi crosses from the left promised much late on but the first just eluded Swift at the far post and the second found Brown, who skied his shot over the crossbar to end the opening 45 minutes.
West Ham had a brief moment of hope early after the restart when the Brown wearing the claret nine (Jordan, as opposed to Chelsea’s Isaiah in blue) got in behind but snatched at his chance and make the save easy for Beeney as a result. The following ten minutes were then almost exclusively spent in the visitors’ defensive third as the home team fashioned a slew of chances, none of which were taken.
Brown was the first to find himself stopped, initially shooting at Howes when played in by Baker, then seeing Moses Makasi make a last-ditch tackle to keep him from tapping in Baker’s header back into the mix at the far post. A corner followed and although Davey won it with a thumping header low towards goal, Brown accidentally found himself in the way and blocked his teammate from making it a two-goal lead.
Baker, evidently taking a break from laying on chance after chance, then tried his own luck by getting on the end of fine wide play by Swift, but he too watched as his effort somehow squirmed wide of the target having appeared destined for the bottom corner. Swift himself was next to step up, cutting inside onto his left foot before rifling just wide from the edge of the area.
Charly Musonda’s fresh legs were called upon with twenty minutes remaining as the first substitution of the night, whilst West Ham turned to Marcio Martins and Matthew Carter in a bid to add greater attacking impetus for closing stages. Swift, now playing in the middle with the arrival of Musonda, then drove a ball across the face of goal which Howes was happy to see wide, before further replacements followed in the forms of Ola Aina and Josh Pask respectively.
Further chances were few and far between though, and despite their inability to make good on their dominance and make the game a more comfortable affair, Chelsea held onto their 2-1 lead to take their place in the Quarter Final draw alongside Newcastle United, Wolves, Man City and Burnley, with Fulham or Arsenal, Reading or Watford and Exeter or Blackburn still to join them.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Davey, Christensen, Nditi (Aina), Aké (c), Loftus-Cheek (Musonda), Baker, Swift, Boga, Brown
Subs not Used: Collins, Conroy
West Ham United: Howes, Amoo (Carter), Page, Nasha, Burke (Pask), Onariase, Makasi, Cullen, Brown, Bywater, Mavila (Martins)
Subs not Used: Guzman, Borg