Chelsea’s Under-21s suffered a fourth straight defeat in all competitions and a third in as many league outings as they endured a frustrating Friday night at home to Leicester City.
Harry Panayiotou’s fourth-minute strike proved sufficient for the Foxes to claim all three points under the floodlights at Cobham and round off a rather disappointing week for the Blues at academy level, with three losses across two age groups in five days without a goal being scored.
With the match being played just twenty-four hours after the Under-18s’ FA Youth Cup defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur, Adi Viveash was unable to call upon any of those who started in North London, but was able to give a start to Jeremie Boga after his 25-minute cameo as well as use all three first-team squad members as Andreas Christensen, Nathan Aké and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all got much-needed playing time.
Mitchell Beeney returned in goal having handed the gloves over to Jamal Blackman at Liverpool on Monday night, whilst Christensen was partnered at centre-back by Dion Conroy and the full-back slots were filled by Fankaty Dabo and Kevin Wright. Aké joined captain Jordan Houghton in the midfield axis, freeing Loftus-Cheek to play in a more advanced role in between Boga and Alex Kiwomya, with Reece Mitchell leading the line.
The Blues went into the contest knowing a victory would take them back to the top of a very tight Barclays Under-21 Premier League table but with just seven points separating top from bottom, the league’s depth of quality was there for all to see as Leicester raced into a fourth minute lead. Conroy’s attempts to shield a long ball out of play were interrupted by Harry Panayiotou, and the St Kitts & Nevis international robbed him of the ball before hammering past Beeney at his near post.
A quick response was led by Kiwomya, who advanced into Foxes territory with a typically speedy run before feeding Mitchell out wide, but Loftus-Cheek was unable to keep his header down as he met the cross. It would prove a rare moment of positive play for the hosts in a troublesome first half and they might have been two behind not long after when Joe Dodoo’s free kick took a wicked deflection off Boga before clipping the outside of the goalpost.
Despite vociferous encouragement from Viveash to move the ball quicker and more purposefully, Chelsea were simply unable to play anywhere near their usual standard having been unsettled by an impressive Leicester pressing game and a much higher intensity from Steve Beaglehole’s side. Beeney was regularly required to keep the deficit to just a single goal; making a superb close-range reaction save to deny Panayiotou before beating Knockaert’s strike away from the near post.
His opposite number, Adam Smith, had considerably less to do, only being drawn into any action of note when Kiwomya misplaced a cross in his vicinity. The visitors continued to look good but were unable to add to their lead as Barmby curled one wide and Beeney got down low to keep out Knockaert in first half stoppage time.
Coming out for the restart Chelsea will have been keen to up their level of performance but within thirty seconds of play they were back under pressure. Lawrence’s bustling run was prematurely halted by Houghton, who received a nasty leg wound and a booking for his trouble, and former Man Utd man Lawrence got up to take the set piece himself. Like Dodoo earlier, his effort took a touch off a Chelsea leg before hitting the post.
The Blues then had their own set piece chance and although Aké’s attempt hit the Leicester wall, it looped up favourably for Kiwomya to volley goalwards. Smith, however, pulled off a strong save, his first of the night before then watching Dabo’s dangerous cross elude Boga in the goalmouth in front of him.
Houghton was unable to continue after suffering that cut leg and hobbled off to be replaced by Kasey Palmer for his second substitute appearance in as many nights, and he arrived just before Leicester should have doubled their lead. James Pearson – son of first team manager Nigel – delivered a peach of a cross from the right that gave Panayiotou a clear header in the middle but, having finished so well earlier, surprisingly headed well wide.
Boga’s latest action post-injury concluded after an hour as schoolboy Iké Ugbo joined the action instead and despite enjoying more possession, Chelsea found it a hard task to break down two solid banks of red Leicester shirts. Unable to work their way through with their trademark short, intricate passing, they instead resorted to more ambitious searching passes that rarely found their target. They were also limited to optimistic long-range strikes at goal such as the one Aké tried with a quarter of an hour to go but Smith dealt with it in the simplest of fashions, as he then did a second free kick from the Dutch Under-21 midfielder.
Palmer was next to try with similarly disappointing results before finally getting a chance from inside the penalty box. It followed good work by Kiwomya and Ugbo but was still from unfavourable territory at an acute and angle and thumped into the side netting at the near post. Five minutes of stoppage time promised one final glimmer of hope but it came and went without the goal arriving and the Blues will now look to bounce back at home to Atlético Madrid in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Youth League next Tuesday.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Conroy, Christensen, Wright, Aké, Kiwomya, Houghton (c) (Palmer 55), Mitchell, Loftus-Cheek, Boga (Ugbo 61)
Subs not Used: Granger, Ali, Suljic
Booked: Houghton, Aké
Leicester City: Smith, Pearson (c), Chilwell, McCourt (Stankevicius 79), Sesay, Davis, Lawrence, Barmby (Kennedy 70), Panayiotou, Knockaert, Dodoo (Rowley 64)
Subs not Used: Maddison, Scott
Goal: Panayiotou ‘4
Booked: Lawrence, Rowley