Chelsea roared back to the top of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League on Monday night as they beat Southampton 5-3 at Stamford Bridge.
They did the damage in a blistering first-half spell where they dismantled the Saints to the tune of five goals in 36 minutes, and from there it was a case of making sure they saw the victory out. Southampton mounted a credible fight back with one goal before the break and two not long after the restart but the hosts took all three points to knock their red and white foes off the summit and claim it for themselves.
Speaking ahead of the match, coach Adi Viveash was keen to assert that despite Southampton’s academy receiving many a national plaudit for the fine work it has put in over the last few years, Chelsea have boys who can play too and that they would show it here. Perhaps with that in mind he fielded an all-English starting eleven featuring many familiar faces from the so-far prolific FA Youth Cup side.
Mitchell Beeney is not one of those, but he continued his ever-present league run this season in goal behind a back four of Fankaty Dabo, Dion Conroy, Jake Clarke-Salter and Jay Dasilva. Charlie Colkett linked up with captain Jordan Houghton in the midfield engine room with the in-form Kasey Palmer just ahead of them, and the Youth Cup forward line was back together as Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke were joined at Under-21 level for the first time by Tammy Abraham.
Southampton included Sam Gallagher in their starting line-up; the big forward scored Premier League goals last season but has spent much of this term on the injury table. He was joined by four others with senior experience in Jason McCarthy, Dominic Gape, Ryan Seager and Jake Hesketh and it was they who were the fastest out of the blocks. A quick move from right to left found Jake Sinclair (younger brother of former Chelsea man Scott) in space, but he was denied by a good save by Beeney, with the ball looping up into the air and bouncing behind via the crossbar.
From there it was all Chelsea though as they produced a rampant spell of football that was as good as anything seen at this level in quite some time and completely blew their opponents apart. Abraham escaped from Wood’s attentions down the right and fizzed a delicious ball across goal only for Solanke to arrive a second too late. It wasn’t to matter though as Chelsea quickly recovered possession and Palmer was able to beat a man on the edge of the box before arrowing yet another fine goal into the bottom corner to open the scoring.
A series of set-pieces threatened to give Chelsea further reason to be positive as Abraham, Conroy and Clarke-Salter all went close to scoring with headers from fine deliveries by Palmer and Colkett but it was Brown who doubled the lead inside of a quarter of an hour. He shrugged off two challenges before sizing up a shot from just outside the box; it flicked off the shoe of Bevis Mugabi to wrong-foot Will Britt in goal and make it 2-0.
With their tails firmly up and their visitors reeling, Chelsea went in for the kill. Brown’s left chip sought to release Solanke, and although Britt intervened the move continued. Dasilva’s follow-up was cleared off the line but only to Palmer, who fired a volley back in and watched it crash home via the waistline of Abraham, who would duly claim a maiden goal at this level.
He made sure his name was definitely on the scoresheet moments later though, notching his 28th of the season to put Chelsea four to the good with barely half an hour played. Palmer, who was effectively running the show, spun neatly and strode forward imperiously before releasing the young striker with a pass of perfect weight. Abraham did the rest, waiting for Britt to commit himself before dinking the ball over him with a finish of supreme confidence.
There was brief respite when a momentary mix-up between Beeney and Conroy threatened to allow Gallagher in on goal but Conroy remained alert enough to tidy up the danger, and so normal service resumed. It was 5-0 on 36 minutes when, from another corner, Houghton hooked the ball back into dangerous territory and Solanke helped it on its way over the line for his own 25th goal of the season. He, like Abraham, has rollicked along to the tune of better than a goal a game this season and Chelsea, for the twelfth time this campaign at youth level, had netted at least five in a game.
Shell shocked though they were, Southampton did at least have something to hold onto going into half time as Seager, the Under-21 league’s leading goalscorer, showed his quality and potential by whipping a glorious shot into the top corner from the edge of the box to make it 5-1 after a terrific first 45 minutes.
Saints made two changes ahead of the second half with Gallagher withdrawn as scheduled and the highly-rated Josh Sims introduced in an attacking reshuffle that saw Seager move further forward. He had a nearly instant impact as he escaped behind what looked a shaky Chelsea rearguard to bundle the ball goalwards, and Hesketh was on hand to make sure it was converted despite the best efforts of Dabo on the line.
In double-quick time Mugabi put pressure on Clarke-Salter from a quick set-piece routine and forced the first-year defender to head into his own net and suddenly it was 5-3 and very much game on. Southampton had doggedly fought their way back into a match they had no right to be in and had the pedigree to force affairs to be even more of a contest with plenty of time remaining on the clock.
Chelsea, though, settled down a bit and relied on the axis of Colkett and Houghton to control the game and fight for the advantage in the middle of the pitch. Solanke collided with Britt and came off badly enough to require substituting; Reece Mitchell the first of three second-half replacements with Charly Musonda and Ola Aina following later.
That, combined with Chelsea regaining their composure, finally saw things calm down and goalmouth incident became scarcer as the game went on. Hesketh flung one into Beeney’s arms before Musonda did the same to Britt at the other end, and when Hesketh got a whole lot more purchase on another try, the net rippled but only because the ball struck the outside of the structure rather than squeeze its way inside Beeney’s near post.
Musonda dazzled late on but the evening was to end with eight goals, five to Chelsea and three points to return them to the league’s top spot. Southampton are rightly proud of their academy and have an unrivalled recent history of success in terms of fees paid for their products but Chelsea will rightly point out that the required standard for their youngsters to break through is considerably higher and that many of theirs might already have been first-team regulars at a club like Southampton. That, as much as anything, was motivation enough for this crop of players going into the night’s action and they reaffirmed – in some style – that they are as good as anybody else in their age group in the country.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Conroy, Clarke-Salter, Dasilva, Colkett, Houghton (c), Palmer (Musonda 69), Abraham, Brown (Aina 84), Solanke (Mitchell 57)
Subs not Used: Collins, Wright
Goals: Palmer, Brown, Abraham (2), Solanke
Southampton: Britt, Flannigan, Wood, Gape, Mugabi, McCarthy, Demkiv (Little 45), Hesketh, Gallagher (Sims 45), Seager, Sinclair
Subs not Used: Isted, Debayo, Cook
Goals: Seager, Hesketh, Clarke-Salter og
Booked: Flannigan, Sims