Chelsea’s Under-18s extended their lead at the top of the South league table with a 2-0 win over second-placed Reading at Cobham on Saturday morning.
The two teams were separated by just a point coming into the contest and the margins were just as fine for the majority of the proceedings, but goals from Charlie Wakefield and Harvey St Clair meant the Blues were able to clinch victory despite a late red card to defender Ali Suljic.
The Blues, once again led by Jody Morris with Joe Edwards away on England Under-17 World Cup duty, adopted a 3-4-2-1 formation that made use of a slew of creative midfielders whilst attempting to compensate for the lack of a recognised centre forward. They were also able to welcome Mason Mount back from injury for a first start of the season, but captain Josh Grant missed out having played every minute of the campaign to date. Trevoh Chalobah wore the armband in his stead.
Goalmouth action was little and scarce for much of the first half as both teams displayed the hallmarks behind their successful starts to the season. Strong, well-marshalled defences made it hard for the technically accomplished midfielders to break through, and although Chelsea had plenty of possession, Reading were happy to afford it to them in hope of being able to catch them on the break.
Jacob Maddox, who has caught the eye in recent weeks, was lively and involved in much of the hosts’ best play, but neither Luke Southwood in the Reading goal nor his opposite number Jared Thompson were asked to do a great deal. Hubert Adamczyk’s quick feet and shifty movement created a rare opening for Mount, but he watched his effort deflect behind as Axel Andresson threw his ample frame in front of the ball.
It was going to require a little bit of quality to provide a breakthrough and Chelsea duly brought it to the fore just before half time. Mount and Chalobah carved a path in behind the Reading defence, allowing the latter to fizz a cross towards the far post, where Wakefield was on hand to beat Ramarni Medford-Smith to the punch and stab home his third goal of the season.
By contrast, the closest the Royals came to a first half goal was when captain Josh Barrett drove a fifty-yard free kick into the penalty area, whereupon it eluded Thompson’s advances only to drop wide of the post, much to the young Chelsea goalkeeper’s relief.
Wakefield had the ball in the back of the net again early in the second half as he reacted sharpest to Southwold’s save to deny Mount, but the linesman had adjudged him to have been in an offside position and the goal was chalked off. Undeterred, he followed up with a jinking run in off the right before curling wide with his left foot.
Reading increasingly looked more like a team holding its own at the top of the league and enjoyed a ten-minute spell of real dominance in search of an equaliser. Sam Smith nodded wide from another free kick whilst Barrett schemed and probed in a free role, yet the Chelsea back three remained dutiful and resilient, ably assisted by the midfield and instructed by the commanding presence of Thompson behind them.
There would be reward for their efforts in the last twenty minutes too, when substitute Harvey St Clair came off the bench to clinch the points. Collecting a pass from Maddox on the edge of the area, he spun away to his left to lose the attentions of his marker before drilling a low shot back across his body and into the bottom corner. 2-0.
That might ordinarily have been that, but the cat soon found itself amongst the pigeons when Suljic received his marching orders. Having slipped in possession, his instinct was to throw a hand in the way of the goalbound Barrett, a decision the referee judged to have been a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity and therefore a red card offence.
Ruben Sammut filled in at centre back with Richard Nartey having inconveniently been withdrawn moments earlier, and as a heavy rainstorm arrived, a grandstand finish was all set up. Barrett twice shot wide when well placed, as did Tyler Frost, whilst Harrison Bennett ensures Thompson’s hands were up to the task with a rare shot on target in the closing stages.
The win ensures Chelsea have tangible breathing room as the fixture list reaches the halfway stage. The visit of Norwich next weekend represents the reverse of the league’s opening day and the young Blues are once again in the driving seat as they approach the winter stretch.
Chelsea: Thompson, Wakefield, Colley, Suljic, Nartey (McCormick), Chalobah (c), Maddox, Sammut, Adamczyk (Hinckson-Mars), Mount, Muheim (St Clair)
Subs not Used: Cumming, Kemp
Goals: Wakefield, St Clair
Sent Off: Suljic
Reading: Southwood, Akinwunmi, Richards, Bennett, Medford-Smith, Andresson, Frost, East, Smith, Barrett (c), Davis
Subs not Used: Howe, Debois, Shokunbi, White, Denton