Chelsea’s Under-21s were held to a 0-0 draw away to Manchester United in a clash between two teams at the business end of the Barclays Under-21 League table on Friday night.
They controlled large portions of the match and fashioned by far the better of the chances but were unable to take them and were held to a first nil-nil draw since a trip to Everton last April. One particular bright spot was the return from injury of Marco van Ginkel, who played 45 minutes some six months after damaging cruciate ligaments against Swindon Town last September.
There were four changes to Dermot Drummy’s team from the one that started the previous league game at home to Middlesbrough. Isak Ssewankambo and captain Nathan Aké came into the full-back positions in place of the Fankaty Dabo and Adam Nditi, allowing the centre-back partnership of Alex Davey and Andreas Christensen to remain unchanged. Jeremie Boga replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, which meant John Swift dropped deeper to join Lewis Baker to accommodate the Frenchman, and in attack there was a return for Alex Kiwomya as Islam Feruz missed out. He started on the right, with Reece Mitchell retaining his place on the left and Isaiah Brown moving into the central striker’s berth.
The hosts were without a number of key players including influential defender Tom Thorpe, hard-working midfielder Ben Pearson, and talented young striker James Wilson, but were able to hand starts to experienced goalkeeper Ben Amos as well as Davide Petrucci and Charni Ekangamene, who have both picked up experience away on loan elsewhere earlier this season.
Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes of play, and whilst they failed to make a breakthrough, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Led by the dynamic Kiwomya terrorising Louis Rowley down the right side, they made considerable territorial gains and carved out a succession of chances, but scarce few tested Amos in the United goal.
Their first attempt did at least extend the England Under-21 international, although quite whether Kiwomya intended to threaten his far post with a cross from the right only he himself will know. Amos did well to swat the ball away for a corner, the first of two in a matter of moments which caused problems for the Reds, and from one of which Brown should have done better than to steer a volley over the crossbar from eight yards out.
Warren Joyce’s youngsters struggled to get their game going in midfield, faced with relentless midfield harrying from their blue-shirted opponents, and when possession was ceded, Chelsea were able to break at speed and with a purpose. Aided by the slick pitch created by the rather predictable Manchester rain, Brown and Kiwomya regularly found themselves with plenty of space to run into, but one way or another their advances came to nothing as crosses were delivered without finding their target or balls in behind were smuggled clear at the last.
Kiwomya had what was by some margin the best chance of the half when Aké’s cross from the left found him unmarked at the far post, but his finish was panicked and lacked confidence, allowing United to clear. For their part, the hosts came on stronger towards the end of the first period and looked threatening when Janko and James Weir combined well, but Mitchell Beeney remained unworked in the Chelsea goal as the whistle went for half time.
Van Ginkel made his long-awaited return to action for the second half with Mitchell departing and Boga shifting to the wing to let the Dutchman slot into a central midfield position. A quick change by Man Utd that saw Josh Harrop replace captain Petrucci after the Italian failed to shake off a knock meant that the first ten minutes after the restart were a bit disjointed as the two teams adjusted to their tactical tweaks, and as the home team upped their game following a well below-par start, the game descended into a midfield battle with little incident of note at either end.
Neither goalkeeper was asked to make a save until midway through the half when Boga, ever lively, took off and beat two men before releasing Baker into space. He got into the box and had the goal at his mercy, which made his shot straight at Amos all the more disappointing.
Drummy then moved Kiwomya to the left in order to allow Boga to play in a more central position again, and with fifteen minutes left the former went on another unstoppable run, leaving Guillermo Varela trailing in his wake, but a brave block by Patrick McNair sent the ball spinning away for a corner and left the defender stricken after an awkward landing and needing to be replaced by Matthew Willock, who like Harrop earlier was making his debut at this level.
Van Ginkel looked set up for a dream comeback when he was given time and space from the edge of the box after a tremendous take out wide by Baker to trap Beeney’s long pass, and although his guided effort appeared destined for the far corner, Amos got down well to tip it behind.
As the affair meandered towards a goalless draw in the closing stages, Brown had a chance to provide a match-winning moment for the visitors but he planted his strike wide from the edge of the box despite having a lot more time than perhaps he realised. It was the last chance of note, although Van Ginkel might have connected with Baker’s late free kick from a deep position, and the points were shared between two teams who are still very much in contention for a top four place in the table and a spot in the end of season playoffs.
Chelsea were unyielding in defence with Christensen in particular turning in an outstanding individual performance, whilst Boga and Kiwomya had exciting games in attack which only lacked an end product. Van Ginkel improved as he went on and will be in line to continue to shake off the rust next Friday night when the Under-21s return to action against Blackburn Rovers at Cobham in a match to be televised live on Chelsea TV.
Manchester United: Amos, Varela, McNair (Willock 76), Ekangamene, Rowley, James, Rothwell, Janko, Weir, Petrucci (c) (Harrop 48), A.Pereira
Subs not Used: Goss, J.Pereira, Rudge
Chelsea: Beeney, Ssewankambo, Davey, Christensen, Aké (c), Baker, Swift, Boga, Kiwomya, Mitchell (Van Ginkel 45), Brown
Subs not Used: Collins, Nditi, Houghton, T.Musonda