Manchester United and Chelsea contested an engaging and entertaining Barclays Under-21 Premier League fixture on Monday evening, eventually sharing the spoils 1-1 at Old Trafford.
The game swung back and forth with both teams enjoying good spells and it was Chelsea who capitalised first when Kasey Palmer scored another fine goal to add to his collection. They were unable to add to that lead though and were made to pay when James Weir equalised for Man Utd, who deserved to take something from a high-level match-up at this age group.
At the beginning of a big week for the academy, with an FA Youth Cup Semi Final coming on Friday night, Adi Viveash’s team selection took the bigger picture into account with as many of his key players included as he could spare. That meant a return in goal for Mitchell Beeney whilst Jake Clarke-Salter, fresh off the back of a first-team debut at Aston Villa on Saturday, reprised his partnership with Fikayo Tomori in defence, and there were also starts for Tammy Abraham and Mukhtar Ali as well as those who can’t feature against Blackburn at Stamford Bridge on Friday.
Warren Joyce’s United team, on the other hand, included the returning Ashley Young and Phil Jones amongst nine starters with Premier League minutes to their name this season. Many of those are Under-21s who have earned a look under Louis van Gaal but their experienced coupled with a healthy crowd on the big stage gave the contest the feel of an important game, something the league all too often lacks.
It took the younger Blues a little while to settle into their surroundings; they were perhaps a little jumpy and slightly nervous in the first few moments and found themselves scrambling to deal with several crosses from wide areas. The best of those, a raking pass from Guillermo Varela to Young, was halted for an offside flag and allowed them to settle down before creating the first decent chance of the evening, a Clarke-Salter header put wide under duress from Colkett’s floated delivery.
Young hit the outside of the post with a cross from tight to the byline but Beeney had it covered in any event but Chelsea grew into the game much better and deservedly took the lead just shy of midway through the first forty-five minutes. Palmer and Josimar Quintero, good friends off the pitch, showed good understanding to combine on the edge of the area before the Ecuadorian Quintero went over under a challenge from Patrick McNair.
Palmer stepped up and placed his shot expertly around the wall and into the far corner, with goalkeeper Sam Johnstone perhaps slightly hampered by Young in his line of sight. It was the fourth free-kick Palmer had scored in the 2015-16 campaign and his fourteenth club goal in all, with two more coming for England’s Under-20s over the recent international break.
Viveash’s boys didn’t look back for the rest of the half, playing with a swagger and a confidence that will hardly have gone unnoticed by Guus Hiddink as a run of games approaches where opportunities may be more forthcoming for some of those involved here. Clarke-Salter strode forward imperiously before feeding Reece Mitchell for a shot eventually deflected wide, and Abraham planted a header just over from a Palmer corner.
Ola Aina went closest to extending the lead shortly before the break with a stupendous dipping volley from the corner of the area that had Johnstone beaten all ends up before bouncing away off the top of the crossbar. It was the sort of effort that deserved a goal and encapsulated the confidence Chelsea carried with them into half time.
Palmer and Andreas Pereira, the respective number tens, each had moments they will look back on and wish they had done better with soon after the restart and United felt they had a strong case for a penalty turned down just before the hour mark when Tomori appeared to barge Young to the ground inside the box, but referee Peter Gibbons remained unconvinced.
Still, it created a spark from the home team and they were level three minutes later. Guillermo Varela made up good ground on the right to find captain Weir, who turned and shot quickly enough to find a deflection off Dabo to take the ball just over the line. The skipper almost single-handedly turned the match on its head shortly after too but his header hit Beeney and, fortunately for the Chelsea goalkeeper, landed safely back in his grasp.
Fearful of being irrevocably overrun, Viveash acted by shoring up the defence with 16 year-old Joseph Colley whilst Palmer eventually succumbed to a knock acquired in the first half, with Islam Feruz returning to the fold in his stead. That settled them down but, just as they had started the better side, Man Utd finished the stronger too and on balance the match proved an altogether even affair.
United looked the more likely to steal a late winner but Pereira’s pull-back from the left found nobody and Young was a half-step away from forcing a mistake from Beeney when dealing with a backpass before then heading straight at him with a stoppage-time header.
A draw was a fair outcome when all was said and done; the point keeps the home team very much on course to retain their Under-21 league title whilst Chelsea, despite having several games in hand over their rivals, will likely aim for a top-four finish whilst focusing their energies on the UEFA youth League and the FA Youth Cup. Tickets for Friday’s match against Blackburn remain on sale until 4pm on the day of the match but must be purchased in advance.
Manchester United: Johnstone, Riley, Williams, Jones (Redmond 75), Borthwick-Jackson, McNair, Varela, Love, Young, A.Pereira (Rothwell 88), Weir (c)
Subs not Used: J.Pereira, El-Fitouri, McTominay
Goal: Weir ‘60
Booked: McNair, Riley, Love
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo (c), Tomori, Clarke-Salter, Aina, Colkett, Quintero (Colley 65), Ali, Abraham, Palmer (Feruz 72), Mitchell
Subs not Used: Baxter, Sammut
Goal: Palmer ‘17