Chelsea’s Under-18s suffered a first defeat since early November on Saturday as they lost 2-1 at home to Reading, who were coincidentally the last side to best the Blues this season.
Chelsea, who have already secured top spot in the South league table ahead of the upcoming split to decide the national champion, were ahead with three minutes on the clock through Miro Muheim, but Reading played well for long spells and goals from Jake Sheppard and Andrija Novakovich secured a well-earned three points.
Off the back of a busy week and with players away on international duty, Joe Edwards’ team selection was once again youthful and relatively inexperienced, although he did have the unexpected services of Mitchell Beeney in goal. He captained the side whilst three schoolboys once again made up most of the defence; George Brady accompanied by Richard Nartey, Josh Grant and Cole Dasilva.
Another Under-16, Jacob Maddox, was part of a midfield strengthened by the steel of Ruben Sammut and Mukhtar Ali, whilst Charlie Wakefield and Hubert Adamczyk joined Muheim in a forward line lacking a centre forward and instead saw all three rotate in the ‘false nine’ role.
It didn’t appear to be an issue, however, as two of them combined to get off to a flying start. Wakefield dribbled from right to left to set it up, laying off for Muheim to slide a left-footed shot underneath the body of Reading captain Lewis Ward and make it 1-0.
Any suggestions of another typically resounding Chelsea victory were however quashed rather quickly. The Royals nearly equalised within two minutes when defender Axel Andresson headed against the crossbar and Dave Dodds’ team were on the front foot for much of the first half. Conor Davis whipped an effort wide coming in from the left before deft footwork by Novakovich fashioned a chance he would eventually slam wide.
The visitors defended stoutly against a Chelsea side really lacking its usual presence in attack and that allowed them to continue threatening at the other end. Sheppard got a step on his man to race clear before drilling wide of the far post, and the diminutive figure of left-back Hammed Lawal got into the box only to head over the bar.
Ward had little to do despite Chelsea going into the break ahead and he wasn’t really tested all that much after the restart either. Reading had deserved a goal and they duly got one ten minutes into the second half when Novakovich strode forward before giving way to Sheppard, who rifled in an unstoppable effort from the edge of the box to put his side on terms.
The American Novakovich had been the best player on the pitch and his quality told again when he scored what would turn out to be the winning goal. He seized upon a loose ball before dancing his way into the box, faking a shot to leave Nartey and Beeney floundering before making it 2-1 with a highly assured finish.
Chelsea now had Iké Ugbo to work off in attack as he replaces fellow schoolboy Maddox and allowed the team to play higher up the pitch, but when Sammut connected with Muheim’s corner they could only watch in frustration as his header careered off the crossbar and away to safety.
Sheppard hit another effort wide in seeking to secure the points whilst Adamczyk beat full-back Akinwunmi before drilling a low one into the hands of Ward. Further late pressure saw Ugbo roll Tom McIntyre superbly to get into the box but his left-footed try wasn’t quite good enough to beat the Reading stopper and the visitors were able to see out some late set piece drama to return to Berkshire with a deserved victory to their credit.
Chelsea meanwhile look forward to a UEFA Youth League knockout tie against Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday before completing their opening round of league fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur at Cobham next weekend.
Chelsea: Beeney (c), Nartey (Guehi), Brady, Grant, C. Dasilva, Sammut, Wakefield, Ali Adamczyk, Maddox (Ugbo), Muheim
Subs not Used: Baxter, Hinckson-Mars, Uwakwe
Reading: Ward (c), Akinwunmi, Lawal, Richards, McIntyre, Andresson, Sheppard, Husin, Smith, Novakovich, Davis
Subs not Used: Frost, Collins, East, Chatee, Williams
Goals: Sheppard, Novakovich