A year is a long time in football.
In November 2016, Chelsea and Oxford met in the Checkatrade Trophy at Stamford Bridge, and shared a 1-1 draw before going on to partake in the longest penalty shootout in English professional football history. A Blues side featuring Kurt Zouma and Marco van Ginkel ultimately prevailed, but the Blues were eliminated from the competition without recording a win in ninety minutes.
Fast forward fourteen months, and how things have changed. Joe Edwards’ class of 2018, with captain Ruben Sammut the elder statesman of the team at the ripe old age of 20, ran roughshod over the same team – League One’s 10th-best team this season – and claimed a handsome 3-0 win to take their place in the last four of the competition, one win away from a remarkable place at Wembley Stadium. Harvey St Clair and Daishawn Redan both scored inside twenty minutes to set the Blues up for victory, whilst Juan Castillo capped it in the second half with a fine third.
Be sure to check out Dan Davies’ match gallery HERE.
Edwards had almost a full complement of players to choose from, with Charly Musonda the only notable absentee from the squad that had beaten Portsmouth a fortnight earlier. Reece James returned from injury whilst Callum Hudson-Odoi continued on the left of the front three in the midst of a sparkling run of form that had seen him score five goals in the space of a week.
Oxford’s preparation was hardly ideal, having sacked manager Pep Clotet the day before the match, and Chelsea made sure to take full advantage of their instability with a blistering start that saw them go two goals to the good in double-quick time. Hudson-Odoi’s smart through ball found Redan, and although his shot was saved by Simon Eastwood, St Clair was on hand to turn home the rebound to get things started after just ten minutes.
That lead was doubled six minutes later when Hudson-Odoi and Redan combined again; the Dutchman this time shifting the ball onto his left foot before unleashing a finish that screamed into the roof of the net at Eastwood’s near post. It could have been so much more too, had St Clair’s luck been a little better, or had his finishing been sharper. A long-range piledriver drew a good save from the beleaguered Eastwood and, after a backheel by Redan had set him clear, he opted to go for goal himself rather than square for Hudson-Odoi for another chance that went begging.
Oxford had only threatened through an Aaron Martin header that Marcin Bułka watched safely wide, but it was a different story after half time. With caretaker manager Derek Fazackerley’s words ringing in their ears, they came out with a purpose, and finally began to assert their physical and mental experience over a young Chelsea side in order to test their resolve. Isaac Buckley-Ricketts, a recent loan acquisition from Manchester City, was unlucky to see a shot come back off the woodwork, but it was enough to elicit a reaction from a healthy travelling support, who were in full voice and now urging their team forward behind the same goal.
Bułka had to use every inch of his considerable frame to get down to Josh Ruffels’ low strike from the edge of the area, and it took committed defending from everyone in blue to preserve the clean sheet. Redan should have done better with a flying header at the other end, but an injury to Trevoh Chalobah – one that he was able to recover from – helped to take the sting out of the game, and Chelsea could regroup.
Hudson-Odoi’s best solo efforts came to nothing, but the game was over when Castillo made it 3-0 midway through the second half. Riding a challenge cutting in from the left, he benefitted from the ball breaking kindly for him, but a delightful curled finish into the bottom corner on his weaker right foot drew the reward it deserved as almost 3,000 fans in attendance saluted their young hero.
Edwards introduced Jacob Maddox and Isaac Christie-Davies to bolster the midfield, whilst Josh Grant replaced James after the defender picked up a minor knock, and they set about ensuring that a poor record of conceding late goals this season wasn’t going to be extended. Ricardo Silva’s late free kick shaved the outside of the post; that was as close as Oxford got, and the defeated finalists in each of the last two seasons were on their way out.
Chelsea, the only Under-23 team left in the Trophy, now await Thursday’s Semi Final draw. Ties will be played over one leg, with home advantage handed to whoever is drawn first, and the Blues will be joined by Shrewsbury Town, Lincoln City, and the winners of next week’s meeting between Yeovil and Fleetwood Town. On tonight’s evidence, nobody will be looking forward to drawing these youngsters.
Chelsea: Bułka, Sterling, James (Grant 72), Ampadu, Chalobah, Castillo, Scott, Sammut ©, St Clair (Christie-Davies 82), Hudson-Odoi, Redan (Maddox 66)
Subs not Used: Cumming, K.Hazard, Colley, McCormick
Goals: St Clair ’10, Redan ’16, Castillo ‘66
Oxford United: Eastwood, Tiendalli, Martin, Ledson, Ruffels, Obika (Mehmeti 77), Silva, Raglan, Mousinho ©, Buckley-Ricketts, Van Kessel (Napa 66)
Subs not Used: Williamson, Shearer, Henry, Xemi, Ashby
Booked: Silva, Ledson, Raglan