Chelsea’s Under-21s lost for just the third time this season on Monday night as they were defeated 2-1 by an experienced Manchester United team at Leigh Sports Village.
A disappointingly cagey first half gave way to a far more entertaining second in which Dominic Solanke opened the scoring to give the Blues a deserved lead. Andreas Pereira’s deflected free kick restored parity in the 69th minute before another delivery from the Brazilian-Belgian found the head of Tom Thorpe to grab a late winner for the Reds.
Coach Adi Viveash made two changes from the Chelsea side that so impressively took Southampton apart in an exhilarating first half of football at Stamford Bridge a week prior, bringing Charly Musonda in for Tammy Abraham in attack and Andreas Christensen for Dion Conroy in defence. The in-form Solanke and Kasey Palmer therefore retained their places, as did Izzy Brown, recently promoted to the first team squad.
The hosts included their usual smattering of first-team overspills as former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés played in goal for the second time in three matches whilst Ashley Young made his return from an injury lay-off, joining Brazilian international defender Rafael in that regard. Thorpe, Tyler Blackett, Reece James and Nick Powell each also started having earned Premier League minutes this season in what looked to be an experienced team selection by Warren Joyce.
If United felt that their side – on average more than four years older per player – had the psychological upper hand then an early confrontation between Young and Fankaty Dabo may have had them thinking twice. The young Chelsea defender, who this week penned a contract extension until 2017, took issue with a late tackle by the England international and a forehead-to-forehead exchange took place with neither backing down.
The visitors also stood toe to toe with United with the ball too, enjoying a lot of early possession and looking more than comfortable in their environs. Palmer looked to continue his fine goalscoring run with a speculative strike from a long way out but the lack of a clean connection meant Valdés was able to watch it trundle wide. At the other end Rafael got forward to good effect but found 17 year-old centre-back Jake Clarke-Salter in an unyielding mood.
The first half was mostly notable for a series of fouls and no little attrition as both sides sought to establish themselves in the middle of the pitch. Jordan Houghton was the first to have his name taken, followed in double-quick time by Josh Harrop for a late collision with Izzy Brown. Brown himself would later have his own name taken for bringing down a marauding Rafael whilst Andreas Pereira made it two cautions apiece before the break for a similar transgression against Charly Musonda.
It took until the 41st minute for either side to hit the target with an attempt at goal and when it arrived it was Palmer with it, latching onto a slack pass from the back after an enterprising run by Jay Dasilva. However, he was under sufficient pressure so as to deny him getting full purchase on the effort and Valdés gathered it safety. Brown then got plenty behind an effort from the other side of the box but his accuracy was lacking as it flew high and wide of the near post, and although United tried to steal a late advantage as stoppage time approached, Clarke-Salter threw his considerable frame in Rafael’s way after a smart backheel by Pereira fashioned their first real sight of goal.
Things were a lot livelier after the restart though and Chelsea took the lead five minutes before the hour mark. A soft back pass by Young left Blackett under pressure, allowing Brown to close him down and win the ball before squaring across goal for Solanke to slide home his 26th goal of the season.
Inspired by his game-changing contribution, Brown then sized up a shot of his own as he looked to guide one into the far corner with his weaker left foot but, once again, the ball sailed high of its intended mark. A slick Blues move followed minutes later as Dabo fed Brown and he in turn gave it to Palmer, who found Musonda out wide with a deft backheel, but the shot was straight at Valdés and dealt with rather routinely.
Dabo and then Powell took the bookings count to three apiece and the latter gave Chelsea a free kick in a threatening position. Palmer dusted himself down from the foul and extended Valdés into his most testing save of the evening, reacting well to palm the vicious strike away from the top corner. It was at this point all Chelsea and the Spanish international was again required to keep his side in the contest when getting down low to keep out a strike from Brown that came at the end of a fabulous solo run through three or four red shirts.
Football being football of course, United levelled things up with twenty minutes remaining. A free kick twenty yards out gave them as clear a chance as they’d had throughout and whilst Pereira’s effort lacked conviction, it did take a deflection off the Chelsea wall, leaving Beeney stranded as it found the back of the net for 1-1.
The same man was given another opportunity to show his credentials as Clarke-Salter’s foul on Weir made him the seventh booking of the contest, and this time it was a clean and impressive effort that demanded every inch of Beeney’s frame be used in flicking it away for a corner.
For the first time the hosts looked favourites to win the game and enjoyed a strong ten minutes, eventually looking like running out of steam and happy to accept a point. With six minutes left though, Pereira dropped a pinpoint free kick into the box allowing Thorpe to arrive unmarked to head into the top corner to give his team the lead for the first time.
Viveash threw on Dion Conroy and Ola Aina to try to make something happen late on but his young charges were just about out of puff. United’s additional development in a physical sense gave them enough to get over the line and they join Chelsea and Southampton atop the Barclays Under-21 Premier League table on 21 points. The title race from here on in is sure to be a fascinating one and should go right down to the wire.
Manchester United: Valdés, Rafael, Thorpe, Blackett, James, Harrop, Grimshaw, A.Pereira, Young (Weir 58), Powell, Fletcher (Love 65)
Subs not Used: J.Pereira, Kellett, Willock
Goal: A.Pereira ’69, Thorpe 84
Booked: Harrop, Pereira, Powell
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Christensen (Conroy 87), Clarke-Salter, Dasilva, Colkett, Houghton (c), Palmer (Abraham 77), Brown, Musonda (Aina 88), Solanke
Subs not Used: Collins, Wright
Goal: Solanke ‘55
Booked: Houghton, Brown, Dabo, Clarke-Salter