Chelsea’s inaugural Premier Under-21 League International Cup fixture took place at Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park on Friday night as they shared an entertaining 1-1 draw with German outfit Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Chelsea enjoyed by far the better of the game’s best moments but struggled to break down their opponents for the majority of the match and found themselves behind following Mario Rodriguez’ goal on the hour mark. They deserved to take something home with them though and a late strike courtesy of Izzy Brown ensured they emerged with reward for their efforts.
Manager Adi Viveash used the fixture to hand some much-needed playing time to some of the older members of his squad, including one or two who had almost no competitive action to their name this season. One of them, Dion Conroy, returned from a nine-month injury absence at the heart of a defensive unit that was able to call upon the first-team squad experience of Andreas Christensen and Nathan Aké as well as Fankaty Dabo and goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney.
Another player with recent first-team football to his name, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, was joined in midfield by captain Jordan Houghton and Lewis Baker, whilst Brown led the line in attack with John Swift and Reece Mitchell supporting him.
Gladbach came into the fixture as a slightly unknown proposition but their relatively impressive academy production hinted at a stern test for the young Blues and indeed, they found themselves in a contest from the very first moments. The Germans pressed high to win the ball back from Chelsea’s kickoff and looked to seize the initiative as early as possible. The hosts, though, are no pushovers themselves and things quickly became interesting as the contest settled into an up-tempo competitive battle.
Kevin Holzweiler had the game’s first shot in anger when he flashed one wide of Beeney’s net from eighteen yards out before Baker ensured Niklas Bolten was alert in the visitors’ goal with an equally ambitious try. Swift then picked out Loftus-Cheek with a raking ball from right to left that found its target inside the box, but the big midfielder couldn’t quite settle things and the chance went begging.
A few over-zealous challenges were par for the course as neither team shirked their defensive responsibilities; Swift found his name taken by the referee for one particularly excessive incident close to the break. A late Gladbach corner saw them threaten as much as they had all half but Steffen Nkausah couldn’t direct his header past Beeney and, after Baker sent a free kick far too high at the other end, the two teams retired to the dressing rooms in search of improvements.
Viveash’s adjustment was to introduce the not-inconsiderable talents of Jeremie Boga in place of Loftus-Cheek. His lively and dynamic dribbling immediately won a free kick that unfortunately, once again, Baker put over the crossbar. Mitchell then came alive from the left, beating Malte Berauer with a burst of speed before bending a shot towards the far post and forcing Bolten to smuggle the ball away to safety.
Two additional bright moments from the feet of Brown meant it was an altogether much better spell for Chelsea as the match ticked towards the hour mark but the match still craved a breakthrough. Despite the increasing pressure being applied by the home team though, it was Borussia who stole ahead after exactly an hour. Moments after Boga had threatened at one end, Holzweiler escaped down the right and delivered a cross that was bundled over the line by a combination of Rodriguez and Dabo as they converged on the ball.
With twenty minutes remaining, Kasey Palmer replaced Houghton in a bid to add further creativity to the ranks but Chelsea were almost level through a more rudimentary approach. Boga’s free kick from deep was flicked on blindly by Brown and the ball looped high before dropping onto the crossbar with Bolten and his defenders only able to watch it and pray it came down in their favour.
Palmer’s flair was quickly in evidence as he did as Mitchell had earlier in the half by beating Berauer in a wide position before unleashing a shot that was dealt with by the rather impressive Borussia goalkeeper but despite their continued dominance over proceedings, the Blues still hadn’t scored.
Dabo’s enthusiastic attacking intent landed Bolten with a sore leg following a collision before he then delivered a good cross from deep. It found Brown at the far post but he was made to work for every inch in attempting to connect and could therefore only plant his header several feet wide of the right-hand post. With 89 minutes on the clock however, it finally arrived. Swift’s header from right to left found a wide-open Brown and although Bolten saved his initial effort, the Chelsea number nine reacted fastest to beat the big goalkeeper in an aerial contest to loop a header over the line and make it 1-1.
Palmer and Mitchell both might then have even won it but saw their attempts saved and roll wide respectively as the points were shared in the first match of the group. The Blues now head to AFC Wimbledon’s Cherry Red Records Stadium this coming Tuesday for their second group fixture against Norwich City before returning to Aldershot in mid-January to round things out against FC Porto.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Conroy, Christensen, Aké (Dasilva 59), Houghton (c) (Palmer 68), Loftus-Cheek (Boga 45), Baker, Swift, Mitchell, Brown
Subs not Used: Granger, Clarke-Salter, Colkett, Kiwomya
Goals: Brown 89
Booked: Swift, Aké
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Bolten, Berauer, Nkausah, Rutten, Lenz, Holzweiler, Brandenburger, Sezer, Mohr (Ndenge 68), Ritter (Simakala 68), Rodriguez (Holtby 89)
Subs not Used: Ograjensek, van den Berg, Szymanski
Goals: Rodriguez 60