Chelsea’s Under-21s are firmly on the title hunt following a 4-3 win over fellow championship rivals Liverpool at Aldershot’s Electrical Services Stadium on Monday night which keeps their destiny in their own hands.
A hat-trick from Dominic Solanke, taking him past the 40-goal mark for the season, and a strike by Alex Kiwomya did the damage in a topsy-turvy and frenetic contest played out in front of Chelsea’s largest Under-21 attendance of the season. The Blues know that by winning their three remaining games will leave them no worse than joint-top with Manchester United with goal difference then deciding matters if they too win their two final outings.
Dan Davies’ always-excellent, can’t miss match gallery is available HERE.
With matches now stacking up to two per week, coach Adi Viveash continued his recent rotation policy in an effort to keep the legs as fresh as possible heading into the final two weeks of the season. That included the goalkeeping position with Brad Collins handed his first appearance of the season in place of Mitchell Beeney, whilst Andreas Christensen added experience to the back four, coming in for Dion Conroy whilst Fikayo Tomori, Jake Clarke-Salter and Ola Ain all kept their places from the match against Fulham on Monday.
Charlie Colkett returned to the starting eleven in midfield, with Jeremie Boga dropping out and Charly Musonda moving into a more advanced position, with captain Jordan Houghton present as usual covering the ground in between them. Kiwomya and Izzy Brown came in for Kasey Palmer and Reece Mitchell respectively, whilst Solanke kept his place leading the line with his recent red-hot form making him undroppable.
Chelsea began by seeking to exploit Liverpool in wide areas, using Kiwomya to the right and Aina to the left to isolate full-backs Joe Maguire and Connor Randall, but despite promising forays and decent deliveries, Solanke was prevented from getting onto the end of things. The Reds carried a potent threat on the break with Jerome Sinclair and Sheyi Ojo, both fresh from Championship loans at Wigan, possessing tremendous pace, and the former opened the scoring in the 13th minute when he was allowed a free header from Ryan Kent’s corner. 1-0 Liverpool.
The lead lasted just three minutes though as Solanke began his evening’s work in earnest. Slick build-up play in front of the dugouts looked to have been halted by a dubious challenge on Brown, but Houghton recovered possession superbly before playing a perfectly-weighted through ball for the Chelsea number nine to latch onto. He had all the time in the world to weigh up his options before going his favoured route; rounding the goalkeeper before finishing confidently on his left foot.
Encouraged by Viveash to be more combative, especially in midfield areas, Chelsea began to impose themselves over proceedings and had the better of the play as the half ticked past the midway marker. With half an hour on the clock, they took a deserved lead for the first time as Solanke produced a carbon copy of his first, taking the ball to his left and past Ryan Fulton before tucking home for the 40th time in club football this season.
Buoyed by the bumper crowd, the tricks and flicks quickly followed and not only that, but they made good on their momentum. Aina and Collins first had to be alert to keep Sinclair at bay but the former was then in action at the other end, delivering from the left to Solanke, who this time laid the ball off for Kiwomya to rifle an unstoppable effort home via the crossbar to give Chelsea a 3-1 lead.
It had been a scintillating spell of football and the two-goal lead had more than been earned but it also had to be retained until half time. Cameron Brannagan did his best to reduce arrears with a cross cleared back towards him by Tomori before firing in a shot that required Collins to push the ball to safety.
Liverpool manager Michael Beale, a former Chelsea academy coach himself, made an attacking change at the break with full Welsh international Harry Wilson replacing the ineffective Alex O’Hanlon and stationing him on the right wing, allowing Ojo to move into a central area behind Sinclair. It was an inspired change as the extra pace and directness provided by the newcomer allowed the visitors to get on the front foot and set about finding a way back into the contest.
Kent’s free kick was good but matched by Collins’ concentration and punch to safety, but there was little the Chelsea stopper could do to prevent Brannagan from making it 3-2 with a low arrowing left-footed strike from the edge of the area after skipping away from two challenges. Now it was Liverpool’s turn to go into overdrive and they might have found themselves level had Wilson not tripped at the crucial moment when trying to connect with Kent’s cross.
Viveash reacted by bringing Palmer and Boga off the bench but it did little to stem the red tide in search of parity. Wilson connected with a long ball from the back, beating Collins in a footrace at the edge of the box, but the ball bounced safely wide of the net. Then Kent, terrific all night, cut in from the left and whipped in a sizzling effort missing the far post by just a matter of inches, whilst Wilson went down under duress in the box only to find his penalty appeals falling on deaf ears.
Tammy Abraham got some fifteen minutes in relief of the hard-working Kiwomya and took less than two to make his usual impact. Combining well with Boga down the right, his pass allowed the Frenchman to size up his options and pick out Solanke, who impudently backheeled past Fulton to complete his third hat-trick of the campaign, having also netted trebles against Huddersfield and Sporting Lisbon.
With a two-goal lead again so late in the contest, Chelsea looked to have the game won and almost had a little extra gloss when Fulton fumbled Abraham’s shot only to get back and recover it on the line, but there was plenty of stoppage time drama to come. Wilson got one right when he swept home at the far post to make it 4-3, and there were all manner of appeals when Ojo fell over in the area in the 94th minute, but again, no penalty was given, and the hosts held out for a victory that could yet have massive connotations.
They now go to Sunderland on Monday before hosting West Ham at Stamford Bridge on Friday May 15th, with a trip to Norwich City yet to be scheduled. Coming away from those with maximum points will place plenty of pressure on Manchester United to do the same from their home and away dates with Mancester City, and with the two teams also tied on +14 goal difference, it really is all to play for.
Chelsea: Collins, Tomori, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Aina, Colkett, Kiwomya (Abraham 75), Houghton (c), Solanke, Musonda (Boga 62), Brown (Palmer 62)
Subs not Used: Conroy, Beeney
Goals: Solanke ’16, ’29, ’76, Kiwomya ‘33
Liverpool: Fulton, Randall, Maguire, Williams, Jones (Sergi Canos 75), Stewart, Kent, O’Hanlon (Wilson 45), Sinclair, Brannagan (c) (Cleary 89), Ojo
Subs not Used: Trickett-Smith, Firth
Goals: Sinclair ’12, Brannagan ’52, Wilson ‘90