Chelsea know that they will likely have to win all of their remaining four matches in the Barclays Under-18 Premier League if they are to become national champions after dropping a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at home to West Ham on Saturday.
A much-changed and extremely young Blues side played well for the most part and carved out a first-half lead through leading goalscorer Iké Ugbo before going on to double it later in the game courtesy of a fine Jacob Maddox finish. West Ham came on strong towards the close, however, and strikes from former Chelsea scholar Dan Kemp and from Jahmal Hector-Ingram ensured Mark Phillips’ boys took a share of the spoils home with them.
With Chelsea opting to fulfil the fixture less than 24 hours removed from their FA Youth Cup trip to Blackburn, coach Joe Edwards was forced into a host of changes whilst also having to do without several alternatives already absent on international duty. Ugbo, Maddox and Mason Mount started having made substitute appearances at Ewood Park the previous evening whilst there were full Under-18 debuts for Reece James at right-back and Tariq Uwakwe in midfield. They were joined by fellow schoolboys Jamie Cumming and Marc Guehi in an unfamiliar starting eleven.
Harvey St Clair proved a constant menace to the Hammers’ defence in the early stages, threatening to connect with Uwakwe’s through ball only to be foiled by England Under-18 goalkeeper Sam Howes, and then had a good shout for a penalty fall on deaf ears as Vashon Neufville appeared to grab him by the waist in the box.
He and Uwakwe each then had shots blocked – the latter by St Clair himself – as the game opened up, whilst West Ham went down the other end and had a pair of efforts bounce back off blue shirts as Hector-Ingram and Kemp began to come alive. Kemp, returning to his old stomping ground for the second time since leaving, came into the match in form and laid on a good chance for another former member of the Chelsea academy in centre-back Declan Rice; the big centre-back’s acrobatic volley was however well dealt with by the young custodian Cumming in the home goal.
Ugbo eked out a lead ten minutes before the break when he used his body and his guile well to collect Uwakwe’s pass, turn his man and finish accurately across Howes into the far bottom corner. The lead could have been even greater moments later when a scintillating passage of football culminated in a great chance for Mount to pounce but Howes was able to sprawl just enough to keep his team in the contest.
The visitors enjoyed the better of the action early after the restart with Tunji Akinola’s header coming back off the crossbar and Anthony Scully kept at bay by a superb reaction save by Cumming, but the prevailing high tempo allowed Chelsea to threaten just as often and they duly doubled the lead when Maddox was able to pick out the top corner with his weaker left foot, curling home wonderfully from the edge of the area to make it 2-0.
Had Ali Suljic put a more accurate header on the end of Luke McCormick’s free kick to make it three, it might have been all over, but instead it was a foot or two too high and within a moment West Ham had grabbed a lifeline. Guehi was adjudged to have brought down Matt Carter just inside the area, the referee pointed to the spot, and Kemp beat Cumming from twelve yards to halve the deficit.
Five minutes later and it was all square again. Neufville pumped a long free kick into the box, whereupon Suljic couldn’t quite clear his lines, and the ball landed nicely for Hector-Ingram, who beat Cumming from close range via the aid of a deflection. There was just enough time for debutant substitute Conor Gallagher to nearly win it with a long-range fizzer well dealt with by Howes but Chelsea now face an uphill battle if they are to realise their national title ambitions and qualify for next season’s UEFA Youth League.
Chelsea: Cumming, James, Nartey (Grant 81), Suljic, Guehi, McCormick, Maddox, Uwakwe (Gallagher 73), Ugbo, Mount, St Clair (Taylor-Crossdale 61)
Subs not Used: Baxter, Ali
Goals: Ugbo ’36, Maddox ‘62
West Ham United: Howes, Neufville, Borg (Hannam 65), Sylvestre (c), Akinola, Rice, Kemp, Scully (Kanu 65), Hector-Ingram, Ford (Carter 45), Diangana
Sub not Used: Matrevics
Goals: Kemp ’71 (pen), Hector-Ingram ‘80
Booked: Borg, Akinola