Under-21s: Sunderland 1-0 Chelsea

Chelsea’s chances of winning the Barclays Under-21 Premier League took a sizeable dent on Monday night as they suffered a 1-0 defeat away to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

Duncan Watmore’s early second half goal proved the difference between the two sides in a tight contest and the defeat leaves the Blues needing help from elsewhere if they are to end the season on top of the pile.

Adi Viveash made four changes from the team that beat Liverpool 4-3 at Aldershot last Thursday, beginning in goal, where Mitchell Beeney returned to replace Brad Collins; both having been involved in yesterday’s first team match. Dion Conroy replaced Andreas Christensen in defence whilst Fikayo Tomori, Jake Clarke-Salter and Ola Aina all retained their places, as did Charlie Colkett and captain Jordan Houghton in midfield.

Jeremie Boga was drafted in over Charly Musonda and Kasey Palmer started at the expense of Izzy Brown, but Dominic Solanke and Alex Kiwomya kept their places after both found the back of the net last time out.

Sunderland’s start was intense and impressive, pinning Chelsea back in possession and pressing high up the pitch to ensure the Blues were unable to play their way out as they prefer to do. They forced mistakes and misplaced passes but didn’t manage to fashion anything to test Beeney in the opening ten minutes. Instead, Chelsea adapted and settled into their usual style and went close when Palmer opened his body for a long-range try that drifted wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal.

Palmer was in lively form having been given the freedom to operate in a central area over Boga, and it was his quick feet and smart dribbling that then saw him beat two red and white shirts before drawing a good low save from Pickford before a defender cleared to prevent Solanke from poaching a rebound chance. Still though, it was a match where the respective tactical approaches were well-drilled and entertaining to watch, and Sunderland began to threaten themselves.

Martin Smith might well have been taking one or two liberties with his ball placement from corners but his deliveries proved threatening, and midway through the first half he picked out Tom Beadling at the near post for a header that had Beeney in trouble only for it to come back off the crossbar. It bred confidence from the hosts and they moved the ball quickly and accurately in Chelsea territory, patiently waiting for an opening that, much to the Blues’ credit, rarely arrived.

Kiwomya impressed down the right and had a decent shout for a penalty late in the half before Solanke then escaped the attentions of his marker to feed Boga, who was only able to flick his shot into Pickford’s waiting arms. Duncan Watmore, the Under-21 League Player of the Month for April, closed out the opening 45 minutes with a neat run and left-footed strike saved by Beeney.

Musonda replaced Boga at the break and offered his usual immediate sparkle but it was Sunderland who struck first in the 52nd minute when a long ball from midfield was misjudged by Aina and allowed the in-form Watmore to steer beyond Beeney with a very coolly taken finish.

The Chelsea response was good though, and an audacious overhead kick by Palmer as he set himself up on the edge of the area almost paid dividends, skimming wide of the post whilst only just eluding Solanke along the way. An injury to Clarke-Salter followed and whilst he was able to continue for ten minutes, he eventually had to be replaced by Fankaty Dabo in a double switch by Viveash that also saw Tammy Abraham replace Palmer.

Mickael Mandron might have done better when escaping behind the visitors’ back line; his near-post strike lacked conviction and allowed Beeney to make a routine save, and although the hosts were then on the back foot in the face of concerted Chelsea possession, they seemed content to hold their shape and force the likes of Kiwomya to resort to low-percentage tries from distance, Pickford watching on as his 25-yarder sailed wide.

If it wasn’t long shots, it was Musonda or Kiwomya dribbling into the heart of the Sunderland defence from deeper positions. They did so to largely positive effect but with a deep back line and plenty of numbers back, there simply wasn’t the room in which to carve out the all-important final touch. With a minute left on the clock, Musonda picked out Abraham in the box and the 17 year-old took the ball under control superbly and seemed destined to score until Dan Cartwright intervened with a timely block.

It means Chelsea now need help from elsewhere if they are to retain their Under-21 title, with Manchester City now taking the role as kingmakers. They represent the opposition in each of Manchester United’s final two games and must beat them in at least one of Chelsea are to stand a chance, and City themselves retain hopes of winning the league but must also then slip up in at least one of their other fixtures. For the Blues, the equation is clear; they have to beat West Ham on Friday and Norwich on Wednesday week, then hope everything else falls into place.

Sunderland: Pickford, J. Robson, T. Robson, Smith, Cartwright, Beadling, Watmore (Nelson 90), Gooch (Blinco 83), Mandron, Honeyman, Greenwood (E.Robson 83)
Subs not Used: Burke, Casey

Goal: Watmore ’52
Booked: Gooch

Chelsea: Beeney, Tomori, Conroy, Clarke-Salter (Dabo 63), Aina, Colkett, Kiwomya, Houghton (c), Solanke, Palmer (Abraham 63), Boga (Musonda 45)
Subs not Used: Collins, Mitchell

Booked: Aina

(Photo courtesy of @jack_mellis)