Chelsea’s Checkatrade Trophy adventure came to a premature end on Tuesday evening as a 3-2 defeat away to Exeter City at St James Park ensured that they will be unable to qualify for the knockout stages in the new year.
A rather disappointing first half in which they were too passive and often intimidated by their more experienced foes saw them trailing 2-0 to goals from Ollie Watkins and David Wheeler, whilst Liam McAlinden put the seal on things with a third early in the second half. A brace from Iké Ugbo in the last ten minutes gave Chelsea hope and Jay Dasilva almost stole a result with practically the last kick, but two defeats from two games means they can no longer progress from the group phase.
It was, once again, a youthful team selection by Adi Viveash, perhaps the youngest in the entire competition overall. Despite the presence of the 21 year-old Fankaty Dabo again after a recent injury-layoff, the Blues started with three seventeen year-olds in their ranks whilst Dujon Sterling, only 16, lined up on the left side of the attack for the first time. Exeter had a 16 year-old of their own in Ethan Ampadu but theirs was a far more experienced side including 39 year-old veteran Matt Oakley.
A month ago in their opener at Swindon, Chelsea acquitted themselves fairly respectably from the off and were only undone by set pieces. It was a far different contest here in the first half as they found themselves under pressure from the first long ball forward and they were a goal behind with just 68 seconds on the clock. McAlinden was given too much time to cross from the left and stood up an inviting ball for Watkins to head home at the far post.
It could’ve been a lot worse soon after were it not for the quick instincts of Brad Collins in the away goal. He was quickly out to slow down Reuben Reid after Joseph Colley’s mistake had allowed him through on goal, and then he raced fully 30 yards from his goal to beat Watkins to Reid’s through ball into the space left behind a rather square Chelsea back four.
It took Chelsea fully twenty minutes to look even a little comfortable in their unfamiliar surroundings but, when they did begin to express themselves, they almost scored. Iké Ugbo and Mason Mount did well in the approach to find Charlie Wakefield, who got the better of the Grecians’ captain Jordan Moore-Taylor only to lack conviction with his finish, allowing Ampadu to clear from underneath his own crossbar.
Exeter doubled their lead before half an hour had been played after they were afforded far too much time and space to move the ball around, culminating in Wheeler curling home from the edge of the area with no blue shirt anywhere near a red and white striped one throughout the entire move.
Christy Pym, an England youth international in goal, had dealt with decent crosses from Sterling and Dabo as Chelsea tried to get something going, but their half was rather summed up by Mount’s wayward curling effort and a frustrating injury to Wakefield, who limped off to be replaced by Jacob Maddox.
Viveash also introduced Kyle Scott at the break and switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation with Sterling and Dasilva operating out wide and Maddox joining Mount behind Ugbo but the one-way traffic continued and the home team were three to the good within five minutes of getting back underway. Pierce Sweeney’s cross from tight to the right byline made its way all the way through the area to give McAlinden the easiest of tap-ins from four yards out.
That put the result beyond any doubt whatsoever and Exeter eased off accordingly, which meant Chelsea had more success in midfield than they were being afforded earlier. Scott’s lovely searching through ball almost connected with Maddox but for Pym getting there first, but, to their credit, they did make the most of it when Ugbo produced a thunderous finish from the edge of the area to make it 3-1, a truly unstoppable strike.
Sterling might then have done better with a header from Dasilva’s inswinging free kick and, had he done so, it would’ve set up something of a grandstand finish. With Oakley having gone off injured with all of their substitutes used, Exeter were under a little more pressure to see things out and had their hearts in their mouths momentarily when Ugbo rattled the post from a tight angle, and even more so when the same man picked out the far corner with another well-taken finish from eighteen yards out to make it 3-2.
That came in the third minute of four additional at the end of the ninety and, miraculously, there was still time for Chelsea to have taken the game to penalties. Maddox’s gallop forward was interrupted with the ball falling to Dasilva, who steered one towards the top corner only for Pym to fly away to his left and push it behind. Collins came up for the corner, Tomori got his head on it, but the goalkeeper made a comfortable save and that was that. Like at Swindon, it took them just too long to get into something resembling their usual style and, although they created chances towards the end of the match, it was a case of too little too late in terms of affecting the scoreline.
The result means Chelsea’s home game against Oxford at Stamford Bridge at the start of November is now a dead rubber from their point of view but, with the U’s still looking to qualify, they’ll have another competitive fixture against a football league side to look forward to and to challenge themselves with. Tickets remain on sale priced at £5 for adults and £3 for concessions.
Exeter City: Pym, Sweeney, Ampadu, Croll, Moore-Taylor (Riley-Lowe 69), Oakley, Watkins, Wheeler (Taylor 62), Grant, McAlinden (Jay 80), Reid
Subs not Used: Olejnik, Byrne, Collins, Smallcombe
Goals: Watkins ‘2, Wheeler ’25, McAlinden ‘50
Chelsea: Collins, Dabo (c), Colley (Scott 45), Tomori, J.Dasilva, Sammut, T.Chalobah, Wakefield (Maddox 39), Sterling, Mount (Taylor-Crossdale 84), Ugbo
Subs not Used: Cumming, Ali, St Clair, McEachran
Goal: Ugbo ’71, ‘90
Booked: Wakefield, Chalobah, Scott