Chelsea’s Under-21s tasted defeat for only the third time in the league this season and the first time since September as they lost 1-0 to Liverpool in an ultimately disappointing match at the Electrical Services Stadium on Monday night.
A weakened Blues selection never really got into their stride and looked disjointed for long spells but were rarely outclassed and succumbed only to Jack Dunn’s well-taken goal midway through the first half. With games in hand on all of their rivals for a top four finish in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League however, they remain firmly in contention for the title.
The group’s second game in four days played a part in Dermot Drummy’s starting line-up, as did Thursday’s all-important FA Youth Cup Semi Final First Leg at home to Arsenal. Four players missed out having started away to Stoke on Friday night as Mitchell Beeney, Isaiah Brown and Alex Kiwomya were rested for later in the week and Marco van Ginkel was pressed into training with the first team ahead of their clash with Paris Saint Germain. Jamal Blackman, Charly Musonda, Islam Feruz and Tika Musonda replaced the quartet with both Musonda brothers making their first starts of the season at this level.
The Blues were also without Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jeremie Boga, Nathan Aké, Kevin Wright and Fankaty Dabo amongst others through choice or through injury but were still able to put out a strong team to face a Liverpool team that went into the evening’s match top of the table and in good form, having beaten Norwich City 4-1 on Friday night. Dunn and Kristoffer Peterson featured heavily against the Canaries and the duo went close to scoring inside ten seconds as a loose ball by Lewis Baker allowed them to combine only for Blackman to intervene.
The cool and crisp evening of pre-match quickly gave way to darkened skies and a deluge of rain that did little to help either team play the sort of football they’ve so often proved capable of and instead the opening 45 minutes lacked quality in the final third. Baker sought to exploit the increasingly wet Aldershot turf with a shot from long range that goalkeeper Ryan Fulton gathered comfortably, and after Dunn had fired over at the other end, Charly Musonda’s quick volley threatened to cause Fulton a problem as it squirmed loose of his grasp but fell safely behind for a corner.
Portuguese playmaker Joao Teixeira teased the sizeable Liverpool contingent in the biggest Chelsea home crowd of the season into thinking their side had taken the lead when his free kick ruffled Blackman’s side netting, but the southern-based Reds did have something to celebrate midway through the first half when Peterson dispossessed Reece Mitchell in midfield and allowed Connor Randall to release Dunn with a pass that took Alex Davey out of the game entirely, and the number nine finished confidently to move into double figures for the season.
Baker immediately tried to wrestle the midfield advantage back but too often found himself fighting a one-man battle, and with Feruz starved of service in attack by the imposing Liverpool captain Lloyd Jones, Chelsea’s best efforts were merely speculative and from long range. Nditi and Feruz both went close but not quite close enough from the edge of the box whilst a succession of high, hanging corners from Baker came to nothing despite the best efforts of John Swift at the far post.
Davey’s evening ended prematurely as injury forced him off ten minutes before the break. Ola Aina, nominally an attacking full-back, replaced him alongside Andreas Christensen in the heart of the home back four. He had little to do in a quiet introduction to the match as the half closed out with a booking apiece on either team; Swift for a late tackle on Teixeira and Jordan Williams for a cynical trip on a forward-bound Tika Musonda.
The visitors could and perhaps should have been out of sight inside five minutes of the restart as Peterson first dragged a shot wide and then provided a chance for Lussey, who saw his shot blocked, before Teixeira once again threatened from a dead ball. This time he struck the woodwork with Blackman none too sure whether the delivery was intended to be a cross or a shot.
In an effort to stem the tide and give his team more going forward, Drummy introduced Alex Kiwomya for Tika Musonda after 55 minutes and the England Under-18 hitman almost equalised with his first touch, but couldn’t quite pick out the far corner after being released by Feruz.
Rafael Paez joined Swift, Williams and Isak Ssewankambo in the book for a lunge on Feruz before a caution for Aina after an incident involving Peterson put Chelsea ahead 3-2 in cards on the night, whilst Mitchell was then lucky to escape one of his own as tempers frayed briefly some twenty minutes from time. The tallies were evened before very long as Rossiter followed Williams’ lead in having his name taken for stopping Chelsea launching a counter attack.
Kasey Palmer replaced John Swift for the last quarter of an hour and had a half decent chance to level the scores in a half bereft of notable attacks but like so many other moments, it was a snap-shot from the edge of the area and missed the target without ever really worrying Fulton.
Feruz had a strong shout for a penalty fall on deaf ears with replays showing that a combination of two Liverpool defenders made no contact with the ball but plenty with the Scottish forward as he advanced into the box, and as Liverpool broke away with substitute Marc Pelosi, they might have put the game to bed were it not for Nditi’s intervention.
A frenetic stoppage time saw Chelsea carve out their best moments of the night as Fulton saved less than convincingly first from Musonda and then Nditi, and then had to be alert to palm away to safety when Palmer danced his way past three red shirts and powered a shot towards the top corner.
Liverpool held out for a win that may cement their place as top seeds for the title playoffs in late April and early May and the two teams may yet meet again with more on the line. The Reds were able to edge things on this occasion largely through having a more familiar starting eleven available but with both able to feature stronger selections, any potential rematch will be a fascinating spectacle.
Chelsea: Blackman, Ssewankambo, Davey (Aina 34), Christensen, Nditi, T.Musonda (Kiwomya 55), Baker (c), Swift (Palmer 76), Mitchell, C.Musonda, Feruz
Subs not Used: Collins, Ali
Liverpool: Fulton, Randall, Smith, Paez, Jones (c), Williams, Peterson, Rossiter, Dunn (Pelosi 76), Texeira, Lussey (Brannagan 63)
Subs not Used: Maguire, Firth, Kent