Chelsea’s Under-18s experienced a frustrating start to the elite stage of their Barclays Under-18 Premier League title challenge on Saturday morning as they let a two-goal lead slip to eventually lose 4-3 away to fellow challengers Manchester City.
Dujon Sterling had provided Joe Edwards’ side with an early lead only for Lukas Nmecha to quickly cancel that out with the first of two goals on the day for him. Iké Ugbo and Ruben Sammut then put Chelsea in command by half time but City were much the better side in the second half and two excellent goals from Man of the Match Brahim Diaz, either side of a Nmecha penalty, ensured victory for Jason Wilcox’s side.
The two sides met at the same venue in the first leg of last season’s FA Youth Cup Final and may be set to do so again this term, but this match represented a clash of the more junior counterparts to those who have already graced a higher stage.
Each side finished comfortably atop their regional league tables in the first half of the campaign and entered the elite stage of competition harbouring ambitions not only of a national Under-18 title, but also a place in next season’s UEFA Youth League should their respective first teams not oblige.
Chelsea travelled to Manchester the day before the game and looked all the better for it as they were fast out of the traps, opening the scoring inside two minutes. Sterling sprung forward from right-back and exchanged passes with Mason Mount before sending a left-footed finish under the body of City goalkeeper Daniel Grimshaw.
That advantage was wiped out before ten minutes were on the clock however. Aaron Nemane, a constant menace down the right hand side, got the better of Ali Suljic before pulling the ball back for Nmecha to sweep home his thirteenth goal of the season.
The two teams then set about enjoying solid if unremarkable spells of possession in an attempt to seize the upper hand, and it was Chelsea who began to make the better of things. Mount and Isaac Christie-Davies wrestled control of the midfield away from the hosts whilst Ugbo occupied both centre-backs well, and there was little surprise when they restored their lead shortly before the half hour mark.
This time the goal came from the left side, with the hard-working Miro Muheim finding his way into the box before slipping a ball into the path of Ugbo, who slotted in his league-leading sixteenth strike of the campaign. Christie-Davies then could and perhaps should have put clear daylight between the teams when collecting a Charlie Wakefield pass but could only curl over the crossbar from the edge of the area.
Sammut was able to oblige Chelsea a third goal shortly before half time though; the defensive midfielder scoring for just the second time in more than seventy matches when he got forward well to finish off a neat move involving Wakefield and Ugbo. Muheim might have put the result beyond doubt seconds later as he seized on a mistake in the Man City defence but, hesitating, he allowed Charlie Oliver to snuff out the danger.
Changes aplenty followed at the break with Wakefield and City captain Marcus Wood forced off with minor knocks but City found themselves right back in contention five minutes after the restart when Brahim embarked upon a sensational individual run, leaving Chelsea players flailing as he danced and jinked his way through before beating Baxter to make it 3-2.
The Spanish playmaker was everywhere having moved inside to his favoured number ten role and was at the heart of everything City did as they looked to restore parity, but Chelsea were able to collect themselves and defend well enough to keep Baxter from having to do anything of note behind them in goal.
He was required to intervene and palm away a dangerous cross from Demeaco Duhaney, with left-back Erik Sarmiento then thundering wide from the follow-up, but there was little he could do about City’s equaliser a little under twenty minutes from time. Sammut was harshly adjudged to have fouled Brahim inside the penalty area, and Nmecha stepped up to convert, sending the young Blues stopper the wrong way from twelve yards.
Nmecha could quite easily have completed a hat-trick quickly after when he latched onto a slide-rule ball by Tom Dele-Bashiru but Baxter was this time able to keep him out, but there was an air of inevitability about what was to follow and, duly, City made it 4-3 with seven minutes remaining. Nemane’s cross from the right eluded Nmecha but wasn’t properly cleared by Chelsea, allowing Brahim to size up his options and find the bottom corner from just inside the area.
Ugbo might have rescued something from the game at the death when he muscled his way past Ash Kigbu only to fire straight at Grimshaw when one on one, and Suljic could have done better from Mount’s floated free kick, but it wasn’t to be and the Blues went down despite their commanding half-time lead.
Manchester City: Grimshaw, Duhaney, Oliver, Kigbu, Sarmiento, Davenport, Nemane, Wood (c) (Dele-Bashiru 45), Nmecha, Patching (Sancho 45, Bullock 90), Brahim
Subs not Used: Haug, Faour
Goal: Nmecha ‘9, 72 (pen), Brahim ’50, ‘83
Chelsea: Baxter, Sterling, Colley, Suljic, Grant (c) (McCormick 79), Sammut, Wakefield (C.Dasilva 45), Mount, Ugbo, Christie-Davies, Muheim (St Clair 73)
Subs not Used: Nartey, Cumming
Goals: Sterling ‘2, Ugbo ’27, Sammut ‘40