League duty called for Chelsea’s Under-18s on Friday night as, less than two days after they won a third consecutive FA Youth Cup title, they hosted Liverpool at Aldershot.
A brace from Iké Ugbo either side of Liverpool goals from Adam Phillips and Brooks Lennon ensured a 2-2 final score and a deserved reward each for a pulsating game that swung back and forth and was up for grabs right until the very end.
Nathan Baxter was the only player to retain his starting place from Wednesday but Ugbo, Jacob Maddox and Josh Grant, all substitutes in that match, started here in a much younger and inexperienced side that also included schoolboys Marc Guehi and Tariq Uwakwe.
There was always going to be an element of a hangover for the group after the week’s exploits and, true to form, Liverpool were sharper not just early on but for the entire first half. Phillips offered warning of Liverpool’s capabilities with a volley sliced wide from the edge of the area and Baxter had to be quick off his line to keep Brooks Lennon from racing away before Chelsea responded with a neat exchange between Uwakwe and Miro Muheim that might have led to a chance before Kane Lewis intervened with a strong tackle.
The Reds took the lead when Kane applied the finishing touch at the far post with a strong outside run to arrive on cue at the end of a sweeping move involving Ben Woodburn and then Phillips. However, Chelsea were back on terms in double quick time as Ugbo headed home from Muheim’s excellent in-swinging free-kick to re-join Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah as the Under-18 league’s leading goalscorer with his 21st of the campaign, and 23rd in all competitions.
Any notions they had about taking charge were quickly dispelled by an in-form Liverpool side though. Ovie Ejaria controlled the midfield and fed his forwards with the freedom afforded to him and might have had a greater reward had his captain Trent Alexander-Arnold not mis-controlled a searching ball in behind.
Neil Critchley’s side did restore their lead when Phillips turned and fired low into the bottom corner after a reverse pass by Lennon, and they will have felt they should have gone into the half time break out of sight. Lennon and centre-back Mich’el Parker both headed straight at Baxter when well-placed and the Chelsea goalkeeper than produced two superb saves to keep Woodburn from adding to the scoreline, the second a brave one low at the Welsh forward’s feet with Josh Grant on hand to clean up the loose ball.
The onslaught continued when play resumed for the second half, Baxter spectacularly tipping over from Woodburn, although the Liverpool man might have done better to pick out the space left at the near post rather than shoot straight down the middle. He tried to turn provider instead with the hour mark approaching but Kane’s deflected effort skidded just wide of the post with Baxter completely wrong-footed.
George McEachran replaced Muheim as Joe Edwards switched to a 3-4-2-1 look in a bid to better contain what had become a red tide, and the 15 year-old midfielder quickly got to work in attack. He found Ugbo, who in turn fed Maddox for a sight of goal, one which was easily gathered by Caoimhin Kelleher. It was enough to shift the momentum and allow Chelsea to equalise with just under twenty minutes left.
It came from Ugbo again and was the best of the night. Picking up the ball 40 yards from goal and with substitute Reece James haring up in support outside him, he kept his head to weigh up his options, moving towards goal before opting to unleash a powerful shot from the edge of the box that Kelleher couldn’t get down to in time.
Ejaria could have swung things back in Liverpool’s favour when set clear on goal by a delightful touch from Woodburn but his delicately-executed chip over the advancing Baxter landed just wide. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s third and final substitution saw Martell Taylor-Crossdale arrive on the scene and almost score with his first involvement, Kelleher this time pushing away his Ugbo-esque attempt.
The youthful vigour driving the Blues in the final stages came with a dollop of defensive naivety though, giving Liverpool hope of taking all three points home with them. Toni Gomes fed Woodburn with both time and space to hit the target, but after such a good performance he got it all wrong and shanked wide with the goal at his mercy.
Guehi weighed in with the tackle of the game when he threw himself in Phillips’ path with a minute remaining, Kane slamming the follow-up wide, and there was still plenty to come yet. James picked out Maddox in the perfect position to notch a dramatic injury-time winner but, in his 41st appearance of the season, his touch was weary and the chance went begging. Liverpool picked things up and Gomes worked Baxter into his last save of the night before Woodburn headed over to leave both teams with a point apiece.
The result means Chelsea finish the season with an unbeaten home record, a sterling achievement on all fronts. They go to Blackburn next weekend to finish the campaign but will do so knowing that, unless Manchester City lose twice, they will not add the Under-18 title to their list of honours in 2015-16.
Chelsea: Baxter, Guehi, Grant (c), Nartey (James 72), C.Dasilva, McCormick, Wakefield, Uwakwe (Taylor-Crossdale 80), Ugbo, Maddox, Muheim (McEachran 60)
Subs not Used: Medley
Goal: Ugbo ’18, ‘73
Liverpool: Kelleher, Alexander-Arnold, Lewis, Parker, Whelan, Coyle, Ejaria (Alves 85), Kane, Woodburn, Phillips, Lennon (T.Gomes 68)
Subs not Used: Masterson, Atherton, Owens
Goals: Kane ‘15, Phillips ‘24