Chelsea secured a place in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League Semi Finals on Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Cobham.
The Blues made sure of a top four finish and a shot at the national title with a well-earned triumph despite twice having been pegged back from ahead. Isaiah Brown opened the scoring early on against his former club and Lewis Baker kept the hosts on top despite Kemar Roofe’s leveller, but Liam O’Neil drew the Baggies level again before the break.
Both sides had chances to win the game in the second half but Kasey Palmer struck his first Under-21 goal to nudge Chelsea ahead before Man of the Match Baker made sure of all three points with a stunning late strike to take his tally to sixteen in all competitions this season.
Manager Dermot Drummy continued to shuffle his pack as a busy recent schedule begins to draw to a close and made three changes from the team that started away to Aston Villa last Monday. A new centre half partnership of Tomas Kalas and Isak Ssewankambo replaced Alex Davey and Nathan Aké, with Ssewankambo’s spot at right-back going to Tika Musonda.
Adam Nditi continued at left-back, as did Jamal Blackman in goal and both Baker and John Swift in midfield. They weren’t joined by Marco van Ginkel on this occasion though, with the Dutchman being replaced by Brown. The ex WBA man started at centre forward, meaning a withdrawn role for Islam Feruz in a trio of attacking midfielders alongside Reece Mitchell and Charly Musonda.
West Brom have been in good recent form and were tenacious and intense from the opening kickoff. They should have been ahead inside five minutes but neither Aaron Birch nor Alex Jones could find their way past Blackman from close range as the Chelsea stopper made two fine reflex stops.
They proved vital interventions too as the hosts were able to take the lead before a quarter of an hour had passed. The influential Swift played an early ball forward to release Brown, who cut back onto his left foot before beating goalkeeper Jack Rose from the edge of the box with an effort that owed a great deal to a deflection.
Chelsea displayed some tremendous football at times and were inches away from a team move that might have been a goal of the season contender but they were at times wide open at the back and were afforded a considerable let-off when Samir Nabi contrived to miss the target despite being offered most of Cobham in which to pick his spot.
A sharp piece of play by Baker created an opening for Charly Musonda and he drew a save from Rose but it was the team in red and black who responded with a well crafted equaliser slightly before the half hour mark, though Roofe appeared to have been offside before lofting his finish over the advancing Blackman for 1-1.
It didn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things as Chelsea instantly restored their lead through that man Baker. He was given his moment on a plate by Brown, who showed poise and pace to skip away from Callam Jones down the right and roll the ball across the face of goal for his captain to slam home at the far post.
Both skippers would end the first half on the scoresheet as the Baggies went in square with a 2-2 scoreline when O’Neil scored at the second time of asking after Chelsea failed to clear a deep free kick into the box. There was enough time left for major controversy as Alex Jones went down in the box for what looked like a clear penalty to everybody except referee Andrew Laver.
Drummy made a double swap at the break with Aké and Fankaty Dabo replacing Kalas and the elder Musonda. Kalas had rarely broken a sweat in his first action for some months but was nonetheless withdrawn with first team commitments in mind, and a third swap early in the second half saw Palmer on for Feruz in a decision that would ultimately pay off handsomely.
Baker pushed on into a more advanced position as a result of the substitutions but it was Swift who got forward the better immediately after the restart and tested Rose with a strong hit from well outside the box. Chelsea’s pressing and their work as a team was a constant menace to the West Brom defenders and they deservedly took a third lead of the game mideay through the second period.
It arrived in curious style as although Palmer will be credited with a first goal at this level of football, he and many others had little idea about it. Baker’s corner had been intended for Aké but the defender collided painfully with a WBA defender and the impact drew most of the attention, yet Palmer reacted to the flight of the ball quickest and knocked it towards goal, where it hit the post and befuddled Rose enough to sneak its way past Rose and over the line.
Needing to find a third equaliser, West Brom poured numbers forward and made life hard for their blue counterparts for much of the remaining time. Roofe schemed from a now central position and they regularly got into good positions but were rarely able to work Blackman as the home defence cleaned up anything dangerous before it could turn into a chance.
It was left to Baker to set the seal on proceedings in the final five minutes as he grabbed his second brace of the week with a sumptuous strike from some 25 yards out; exchanging quick passes with Mitchell before drilling into the bottom corner. It was a fitting goal from a fitting player to confirm Chelsea’s champion potential at this level and they will hope to head into the playoffs with as much momentum as possible by defeating Arsenal this coming Tuesday and going into the final four as the top seed.
Chelsea: Blackman, T. Musonda (Dabo), Ssewankambo, Kalas (Aké), Nditi, Swift, Baker (c), Feruz (Palmer), Mitchell, C. Musonda, Brown
Subs not Used: Collins
West Brom: Rose, Gayle (Garmston), Atkinson, O’Neil, Howkins, C. Jones, Roofe, Birch, A. Jones, Pace (Ward), S. Nabi (Francis)