Chelsea continued their recent run of good form at Under-21 level with a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough at Aldershot on Saturday.
The Blues may have had a weather-affected February but many of the group took part in the emphatic win over Milan in the UEFA Youth League and came into the match in good form. Isak Ssewankambo scored the only goal of the match with an hour on the clock and secured three points that keep Dermot Drummy’s team at the business end of the Under-21 league standings.
Dan Davies’ excellent match gallery is available HERE.
With an FA Youth Cup date at Newcastle ahead on Tuesday, the team picked by Drummy was nonetheless strong yet also omitted both Jeremie Boga and Alex Kiwomya entirely. Mitchell Beeney started in goal behind a relatively familiar back four of Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and Adam Nditi; the latter now match fit again after a recent spell on the sidelines.
England youth internationals Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker and John Swift lined up in midfield and two more flanked lone striker Islam Feruz; Isaiah Brown, making his first start since his own injury absence, and Reece Mitchell, making his first start at this level.
Middlesbrough selected a young team themselves, although they were able to call upon the experienced hands of Jayson Leutwiler in goal. He would be in for a busy afternoon as despite holding their own for long periods, the visitors just couldn’t quite keep up with their hosts.
Both outfits attacked extensively down their respective left sides in the opening stages, which meant a lot of involvement for Brown and for his opposite number eleven, Northern Irish forward Ryan Brobbel. They both looked sharp but found breaking into the area a tough task, and half chances were the order of the day as Swift had a shot charged down and Tinkler a header over in quick succession at either end.
When looking for goals at this level, Baker is a regular contributor, especially from set pieces. He threatened once again midway through the first half when his 30-yard effort came crashing back off the crossbar, much to Leutwiler ‘s relief. It was the fourth time this season the Chelsea skipper had been denied a dead ball goal by the woodwork, which in addition to his three strikes scored merely reinforces the considerable danger he poses.
Brobbel ensured things were interesting at the other end by first volleying over after a neat touch to set himself up, and then by just failing to reach a cross, but as the first half closed out it was Chelsea who picked up the tempo and asked the more probing questions. Davey headed over from Baker’s corner before Baker himself then stung the hands of Leutwiler with a fine strike following good play by both Feruz and Mitchell.
Feruz had the final chance to break the deadlock before the break but his best efforts to best Leutwiler at his near post were not quite good enough and so the two sides retired in from the Hampshire springtime sunshine with little between them.
Both managers made a change at the break, perhaps trying to glean that decisive edge. Ssewankambo replaced Loftus-Cheek for Chelsea, whilst Scott McCarthy came on for Middlesbrough in relief of Jordan Jones.
The former, of course, would have the telling impact, but not before McCarthy did his best to beat him to it. The powerful forward got the better of Nditi in a wide position and then found the onrushing Callum Cooke, who arrived with Frank Lampard-esque timing to thunder a shot on target, but one Beeney was equal to as he made a stunning one-handed save low to his right.
Not to be deterred, Cooke was knocking at the door again moments later as he seized upon a mistake by Davey to chance his arm from the edge of the box, but there again was Beeney with a fine save to deflect the ball onto the crossbar and away for a corner.
It had been by some margin Boro’s best spell of the match, but it duly woke Chelsea from their brief slumber and they were soon back on top and hunting a breakthrough. Mitchell’s low bobbling effort was shovelled wide by Leutwiler, and from the following corner Davey’s knockdown caused something of a scramble that ended with Ssewankambo prodding over the goal from close range.
The Swede didn’t need a second invitation to score though, and netted the only goal of the match fifteen minutes after coming on. A smart move saw him exchange passes with Swift before moving into the area and finishing past Leutwiler with a deftly nudged finish.
The game then quickly became an end to end affair with chances arriving thick and fast for both sides. A lovely piece of skill from Baker set up Swift for a shot he couldn’t keep down, whilst in response Bradley Fewster skied one over Beeney’s goal from am ambitious distance.
Ola Aina came on for Brown with twenty minutes left and despite joining the game at left-back he worked the busy Boro goalkeeper with his first touch. The Swiss custodian had kept his team in the match at times, and now needed help from one of his forwards to get them back on terms.
Brobbel so nearly obliged when he took off on a dazzling run from inside his own half to the edge of the Chelsea box, but his effort took the slightest of deflections and skimmed away for a corner. As they picked up the tempo for one final go, Fewster had the ball in the net but was adjudged to have been offside; a decision he vehemently disagreed with and was cautioned for protesting.
Chelsea held out and might have added to the score late in when Swift was once more prevented from highlighting his day with a goal by Leutwiler, and Baker might have been awarded a penalty had the referee not blown for full time instead of a spot kick. The Blues remain amongst the contenders for Under-21 honours and will look to reaffirm their credentials in a fortnight’s time against Manchester United, by which time they will also know whether they can once again call themselves FA Youth Cup and European semi finalists.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Davey, Christensen, Nditi, Loftus-Cheek (Ssewankambo 45), Swift, Baker (c), Mitchell, Brown (Aina 70), Feruz
Subs not Used: Collins, Conroy, T. Musonda
Middlesbrough: Leutwiler, Helm, Burn, Weledji, Meling, Tinkler, Jones (McCarthy 45), Cooke, Fewster, Kitching, Brobbel
Subs not Used: Sirrell, Dawson, Maloney, Coleby