Chelsea’s Under-18s moved to within a win of securing a third consecutive Southern section title on Saturday morning after defeating second-placed Reading 2-0 at Hogwood Park.
In a hard-fought match between the two teams that have made much of the going in the Southern section this season, goals late in either half from George McEachran and Callum Hudson-Odoi took Jody Morris’ side eight points clear at the top of the standings with just three rounds to play before the split for merit stage competition.
Fresh off the back of an FA Youth Cup victory over Sheffield Wednesday in midweek, Morris made substantial changes to his starting eleven, with just Marc Guehi, Reece James, Luke McCormick and Hudson-Odoi keeping their places. Jamie Cumming returned in goal, as did Josh Grant and Cole Dasilva defence, whilst Conor Gallagher partnered McCormick in the middle of the park. McEachran reprised his attacking duties alongside Juan Castillo, Martell Taylor-Crossdale and Hudson-Odoi.
Reading suffered the loss of leading goalscorer Ben House to injury during the warmup and had to adjust their plans accordingly. They found themselves up against it early on as Chelsea enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and the better of the half-chances, with Castillo and Gallagher getting sighters off early.
James was influential along the right side all match and got forward into attacking areas frequently. More than once his delivery looked to have produced an opening, but Chelsea weren’t able to take advantage of any of them, nor were they really in a position to test home goalkeeper Liam Driscoll until Hudson-Odoi stung his hands with a smart shot on the counter attack.
They made the breakthrough in similar fashion and it came from the in-form McEachran. Springing the offside trap – he appeared to be a yard offside however – he collected possession and cut inside from the right before steering an excellent low finish into the far corner.
It was the least the Blues deserved though, as they were the better team for long passages of play. Jordan Holsgrove’s scuffed try from the edge of the area was the best the Royals could muster in response but, just before the break, it took an excellent header from Castillo to prevent Danny Loader from equalising at the end of a sweeping home move from back to front.
Loader went close again early in the second half with an instinctive volley that required Cumming to get down and make a good save. Taylor-Crossdale, meanwhile, shot over at the other end, whilst McCormick sidefooted too close to Driscoll at Chelsea sought to extend their lead.
There was a near-ten minute injury delay around the hour mark when Loader and Cumming went for a ball on the edge of the Chelsea area, leaving the young goalkeeper with a kick to the head and a cut that required bandaging, although he was able to continue.
His defence did a good job of protecting him and keeping Reading at arm’s length, whilst James continued to impress on the right with another cross that deserved a finish. Gallagher and Hudson-Odoi spurned good openings to seal the three points and substitute Harvey St Clair smacked one straight at Driscoll as the clock ran towards full time.
Hudson-Odoi did finally make it two midway through a lengthy period of time added on; slipping away from his man down the left before showing enough strength and guile to work a shooting position before beating Driscoll from a narrow angle for his second goal of the week.
The win almost certainly ensures the Blues will take part in the Elite merit group which kicks off in April and takes in the top four sides from both the North and South leagues, whereupon each team then plays each other once to determine a national Under-18 champion.
Reading: Driscoll, Howe, Balogun (Green), Shokunbi, Holmes, Philby, Rollinson, Holsgrove, Coleman, Loader, Tella (Wallace)
Subs not Used: Hillson, Wilson
Booked: Shokunbi, Loader
Chelsea: Cumming, James, Guehi, Grant (c), C.Dasilva (Jameson), McCormick, Gallagher (Panzo), Castillo, Taylor-Crossdale (St Clair), McEachran, Hudson-Odoi
Sub not Used: Thompson
Goals: McEachran, Hudson-Odoi