Chelsea bowed out of the 2016-17 Premier League International Cup on Thursday evening after a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Swansea City at Aldershot’s EBB Stadium.
The Blues needed a minor miracle if they were to make it through the group stage after Dinamo Zagreb beat Feyenoord 3-0 at Cobham on Tuesday, and gave it a good go after taking a first-half lead through Josimar Quintero, but a hotly-disputed second-half penalty allowed Swansea to get back on terms and the hosts were unable to up their game enough to clinch the required result.
Tasked with needing at least a four-goal winning margin to even stand a chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals, Adi Viveash adopted an attacking 3-4-2-1 formation spearheaded by Dominic Solanke in attack. He was supported by Quintero and Mason Mount, whilst Dujon Sterling and Jay Dasilva provided support out wide, and there was also a return from injury in defence for captain Fankaty Dabo, who will almost certainly be looking for a loan move when the transfer window opens on January 1st.
Swansea were to be no pushovers though, coming into the match on a run of just one defeat in their last ten, and sitting comfortably atop Division Two of the Premier League 2. They too needed a win but would be less reliant on results elsewhere going in their favour, and so with neither side very keen to make the first mistake, it was an extremely cagey start in wintery Hampshire.
That wasn’t to say the match lacked quality; far from it. Both teams moved the ball crisply and with purpose, and each defended well when they were required to. Chelsea, as is their wont, controlled the lion’s share of possession and threatened through a pair of dangerous crosses by Mount, whilst Swansea were more opportunistic and might have felt they could have done better with clearer sights at goal for skipper Keston Davies and winger Owain Jones.
Dasilva proved a constant thorn in the side of Swans’ Tyler Reid at right-back, going past him at will and having ample room to produce quality service into the box. When he produced the pick of his first-half crosses, however, neither Solanke nor Mount could apply the finish it deserved.
Quintero opened the scoring ten minutes before half time and did so with a passage of play that encapsulated everything he’s done well so far this season. Picking up possession on the halfway line, he quickly fed Mount before driving off on an overlapping run, receiving the patient return pass before steering an exquisite finish into the far corner and well out of the reach of goalkeeper Mark Birighitti.
Birighitti would however be required to intervene before the interval as he was somehow able to deny Sterling a second with a sprawling point-blank save inside the six-yard box. That produced a corner from which Trevoh Chalobah rattled the woodwork with a looping header, and the visitors will certainly have been happy to go into their dressing rooms after 45 minutes trailing by just a single goal.
They were level within ten minutes of play resuming but it came in the most curious – and fortuitous – fashion. Chalobah was adjudged to have fouled substitute Daniel James in the area, despite the newcomer neither not going down under the challenge, or interrupting his run and eventual shot on goal. With everyone on the pitch rather baffled, Botti Biabi stepped up to convert from the penalty spot and make it 1-1.
Regardless of the controversy, James had made a tangible impact and his searing pace and direct running had Chelsea worried. Five minutes later he powered down the right and clipped over a perfect ball for Jones at the far post; all that was needed was a simple finish but all he was able to produce was a horribly wayward finish, one more appropriate for festive bloopers compilations.
Quintero was then lost to injury and Kyle Scott made way having picked up a booking for persistent fouling, allowing Isaac Christie-Davies and Miro Muheim to join Iké Ugbo in coming off the bench, the forward relieving Solanke after a quiet evening all round. That, combined with the frustration of having been pegged back in such a manner, rather disrupted their approach and they found it increasingly hard to recapture their best form.
It did take another stupendous save by Birighitti to prevent Ugbo from restoring the lead when he flung himself away to his left to somehow keep out a close-range header with just under a quarter of an hour left, and everything was rather summed up five minutes from time when James beat Collins via a deflection off Sterling to nick the win for the Welshmen.
Still, it’s been a largely positive six months of development for this youngest of groups – one which began the season with a sixteen year-old and five seventeen year-olds in the team – and they can look forward to building upon the foundations they’ve put in place after their Christmas break. A trip to Tottenham Hotspur on January 6th awaits them in the New Year.
Chelsea: Collins, Sterling, Colley, T.Chalobah, Dabo (c), Scott (Muheim 65), Mount, Ali, Solanke (Ugbo 54), Quintero (Christie-Davies 63), J.Dasilva
Subs not Used: Thompson, Sammut, Wakefield, Maddox
Goal: Quintero ’34
Swansea City: Birighitti, Reid, Lewis, Evans, Davies (c), Rodon, Bray (James 45), Maric (Blair 68), Biabi, Byers, Jones (Samuel 74)
Subs not Used: Zabret, Plezier, Dyson, Holland
Goal: Biabi ’53 (pen), James ‘86