Chelsea’s Under-21s made it eleven unbeaten league matches in a run stretching back to late September by beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0 at Cobham on Friday night.
Islam Feruz’s strike midway through the first half proved enough to secure another three points in the young Blues’ title challenge and whilst they might have done enough to deserve a healthier margin of victory, there was never really a threat of them relinquishing their advantage as they turned in another hard-working and professional performance.
There were two notable pieces of team news ahead of kick-off with Jamal Blackman returning to the squad for the first time since November and Marco van Ginkel starting after playing 45 minutes as a substitute against Manchester United a week ago. The Dutchman took part as the latest step in his rehabilitation from cruciate ligament damage last September.
Blackman took over goalkeeping duties from Mitchell Beeney, who proved an excellent deputy in his absence, and he did so in front of the same back four that featured last time out in Isak Ssewankambo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and captain Nathan Aké. Lewis Baker joined Van Ginkel in a creative and versatile central midfield pairing with the lively trio of Alex Kiwomya, Jeremie Boga and John Swift playing off Feruz ahead of them in attack.
Blackburn approached the match with a little trepidation following a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Manchester City earlier this week and it showed in their first half approach. Ten red shirts were often found behind the ball with only promising young forward Dean Rittenberg left to feed off scraps and clearances in attack, and their best moments in the opening 45 minutes came when Blackman was found to be a little rusty in his dealings with backpasses, but even they proved to be little to worry about.
Instead, Chelsea set themselves up with a high defensive line and a higher attacking line in a bid to force the agenda and dominate the game. They were restricted to a couple of threatening crosses from Kiwomya and Feruz respectively inside the first ten minutes with the latter almost resulting in an own goal by Rovers captain Darragh Lenihan, but they soon began to fashion shots on target.
Van Ginkel’s header back into the mix following a corner allowed Feruz to turn and shoot at goal but his shot was needlessly rushed and allowed David Raya to make a relatively routine save, but the Scottish Under-21 international forward wasn’t about to let them off the hook again and gave the Blues the lead shortly before the half hour mark with an emphatic finish at the near post after breaking the offside trap and running clear on goal.
Blackburn couldn’t handle the home onslaught and they were lucky to go into the break trailing by just a single goal as their illustrious opponents carved out opportunity after opportunity following their opener. Aké was guilty of spurning the best of them as he slammed his shot straight at Raya after finding himself completely unchallenged on the penalty spot, whilst Swift and Baker then went close after some dogged work by the former in order to make things happen.
With Van Ginkel and Baker sitting in midfield and dropping deft little passes in behind, Blackburn simply looked to drop deeper and deeper, which in turn allowed Drummy’s charges to set up even closer to goal. Baker got on the end of one delicate Van Ginkel ball and nodded back to Swift, who seemed destined to work Raya before Sam Lavelle intervened with a timely block, and just before the break Swift’s guided cross found Baker but Hugo Fernandez did just enough to distract him from his finish to keep it 1-0 at the break.
Blackburn were late out for the restart but the half started badly for Chelsea when Boga suffered an ankle injury and was forced off, with Reece Mitchell replacing the stricken Frenchman. The change coincided with a decent few minutes for the visitors during which Luke Wall might’ve done better with a shot at the far post, but he took too long to decide quite how he wanted to take it on and allowed Davey to get in with a block.
Van Ginkel departed after exactly an hour having put in a smart display with clear improvement in his sharpness from seven days earlier, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek took up his duties in midfield. He quickly settled into things and released Mitchell and then Kiwomya with incisive passes into wide areas and the latter had a number of options after driving into the area, but got his pass to Swift all sorts of wrong and allowed Lenihan to clear.
It summed up most of the second half as for all of their earlier dominance, Chelsea simply struggled to get back into their stride. Blackburn grew stouter as the match went on and at least offered some resistance but neither goalkeeper had a save to make until the 88th minute when Adam Nditi – on for the cramp-stricken Feruz – stung Raya’s hands from outside the box.
There hadn’t even been a shot in anger until the 85th minute when Devarn Green curled a free kick over the crossbar, followed two minutes later by Mitchell slamming a shot into the face of Fernandez instead of the target.
To their credit Chelsea ensured they held onto what they had at the very least as Rovers made it hard for them late in the day, and they very much solidified their chances of a top four finish and a spot in the end of season playoffs. With games in hand on almost all of their rivals, they will seek to make up ground away to Stoke at the Brittania Stadium next Friday.
Chelsea: Blackman, Ssewankambo, Davey, Christensen, Aké (c), Baker, Van Ginkel (Loftus-Cheek 60), Boga (Mitchell 51), Swift, Kiwomya, Feruz (Nditi 85)
Subs not Used: Collins, T.Musonda
Blackburn Rovers: Raya, Fernandez, Bauress, Tanner, Lavelle, Lenihan (c), Green, Doyle, Rittenberg (Pero 72), Beesley, Wall (Paul 72)
Subs not Used: Paulo Jorge, Williams, Cotton