Chelsea will go into the Barclays Under-21 Premier League playoffs as the top seed and finish the regular season at the top of the standings courtesy of a 2-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening.
The Gunners went ahead in the first half as Hector Bellerin edged the hosts into a deserved lead but the Blues responded better as the game went on and goals from Lewis Baker and John Swift – their seventeenth and fifteenth strikes of the campaign respectively – secured a second win in six days for the club at Arsenal’s first team stadium, following the Under-18s’ Youth Cup success.
It was a second fixture in four days for Dermot Drummy’s young charges and the coach made a handful of changes from the team that beat West Brom 4-2 at Cobham on Saturday. Mitchell Beeney replaced Jamal Blackman in goal with the latter away on first team Champions League duty, whilst a much changed back four saw Ola Aina partner Andreas Christensen in the middle whilst Isak Ssewankambo moved out to the right and Adam Nditi retained his place on the left.
Swift and Baker were joined by the familiar third of their party in Ruben Loftus-Cheek whilst Isaiah Brown retained his lead striker role over Islam Feruz, who dropped to the bench with Reece Mitchell and Alex Kiwomya preferred on the flanks.
Arsenal, needing to win both of their remaining matches and requiring help from elsewhere if they were to finish in the top half of the league split ahead of next season, gave a first appearance in over a year to the injury-hit Abou Diaby, whilst fellow first team squad member Carl Jenkinson was also included. Three of their Youth Cup squad started compared to seven of Chelsea’s, and many of those in red shirts had already earned first team minutes in the League Cup.
Perhaps buoyed by their recent escapades in N5, the visitors started well and forced the going early on. Swift made a smart and timely run in behind seeking to replicate his recent strike away to Aston Villa but couldn’t quite bring Loftus-Cheek’s pass under control, whilst Baker then fired over into the vacant North Bank from outside the area.
He did the same from a free kick not long after but Arsenal began to show some of what they could do and with Diaby’s presence looked to take control of the game. The Frenchman was clearly feeling his way back into the pace of competition but still managed to sting Beeney’s hands with a dig from distance.
The game’s opening goal came after half an hour and came when the ex-Barcelona man Bellerin broke clear of the Chelsea defence and the offside trap and sprinted clear towards goal. Aina caught up with him but could do little as he tucked the ball past Beeney and into the back of the net.
The Blues are rarely exposed in such a manner but Bellerin, playing in a more advanced role than his more familiar right-back spot, did for them again moments before the break, only for that move to be brought to an unceremonious end by Aina’s foul on Isaac Hayden. The defender was booked and Beeney held onto Jenkinson’s driven free kick.
Both managers changed things up at the break with Arsenal resting Diaby’s fragile legs and Julio Pleguezuelo’s injured ones in favour of Zak Ansah and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, whilst Kasey Palmer replaced Loftus-Cheek in Chelsea’s midfield having come on to positive effect last time out.
His energy, natural flair and desire to play the ball forwards instantly lifted Chelsea and during a twenty minute spell of heavy rain over North London they began to construct an approach that would eventually yield an equaliser. Feruz was added in place of Mitchell after he suffered a thigh problem and the Blues camped in the Arsenal third, looking for a breakthrough.
Much of their play was well funneled into wide areas by the home defence but it served to allow Ssewankambo a chance to display his attacking versatility. He went close twice in quick succession, first shooting wide right before then crashing one into the left side netting, but a goal seemed all but certain and duly arrived with 67 minutes on the clock. A cross from the right fed Baker, who arrived into Lampard territory and finished with the same clinical confidence, planting a low first time backheel flick past Matt Macey to make it 1-1.
Usually, Chelsea would then have turned the screw and upped the tempo in search of a winner, but to their credit Arsenal found a second wind and were back on top and looking dangerous. A moment of controversy arrived with ten minutes left as Maitland-Niles was brought down just outside the box by Beeney, but despite being the last man he escaped with a yellow card as the Arsenal man was heading away from goal and therefore deemed not to have had a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The hosts may have felt that it wasn’t to be their night and that feeling was soon confirmed when Hayden saw his shot flick up off a blue boot and loop over Beeney onto the crossbar. Moments later, Palmer won a free kick wide on the right which was headed home by Swift to clinch all three points and plenty of bragging rights.
The margin of victory might even have been greater had Nditi’s thirty yarder not been kept out by a combination of Macey and the crossbar, but the win ensures at least one home game in a playoff stage that will also feature Liverpool and two from Fulham, Southampton, Man City, Man Utd and Leicester City. Arsenal meanwhile find themselves consigned to playing amongst the ‘lesser’ elite next season and won’t have a league fixture against a Chelsea team that have every chance of being defending champions by that point.
Arsenal: Macey, Jenkinson, Ajayi, Pleguezuelo (Ansah 45), Ormonde-Ottewill, Diaby (Maitland-Niles 45), Hayden (c) (Zelalem 88), Olsson, Bellerin, Toral, Akpom
Subs not Used: Huddart, Moore
Chelsea: Beeney, Ssewankambo, Aina, Christensen, Nditi, Loftus-Cheek (Palmer 45), Baker (c), Swift, Kiwomya (C.Musonda 78), Mitchell (Feruz 60), Brown
Subs not Used: Collins, Dabo