BALLACK IN BLUE AGAIN

By Philip Rolfe
Nov 27th, 2007

Perhaps it was the pressure of playing under the watching eyes of Avram Grant, Henk Ten Cate, and Frank Arnesen. Perhaps it’s that it was cold. Or perhaps it was the difference of teenagers playing against men. Whatever it was, Chelsea were thoroughly outclassed by Birmingham in this Reserve fixture and fell to their fifth straight defeat by a 0-2 score line.

With injuries to captain Sam Hutchinson and midfielder Michael Woods, and a number of players away on loan spells, the team once again had a slightly unfamiliar look to it. Adrian Pettigrew returned to the heart of the defence after a loan spell at Brentford, whilst 16 year-olds Gael Kakuta and Frank Nouble, the latter not yet a first year scholar, formed two-thirds of the attack. The big feature, however, was Michael Ballack, continuing his path back from an injury sustained in May by playing his first competitive football since that day.For the early exchanges, the teams looked fairly even, as nothing much was happening at all. Chelsea kept the ball well in their own half, but when they looked to advance, they found nothing, with Liam Bridcutt constantly turning possession over in the first half an hour. Ballack was cruising but looked interested enough to be involved in the first chance of the game, forcing Franck Queudrue to clip the ball onto his own crossbar from a low cross from the left.

Harry Worley was forced off injured after 32 minutes, injuring his left foot when hurdling the advertising boards and landing in the front row of the empty Bill Axbey Stand. Jeffrey Bruma, who only turned 16 a fortnight ago, came on and slotted into the heart of the defence, where he’s excelled at Academy level this season. Chelsea were to go close again before half time, with another Ballack run from deep to just miss Nouble’s cross, created after some fine work from the young Ivorian lad. Ballack was to be withdrawn after 45 minutes, completing this leg of his comeback without a problem.

Despite having few first half chances, Birmingham rarely looked troubled and the experience in their team, featuring numerous players with plentiful Premiership experience, was telling. It took a little over five minutes for them to take the lead after the restart, with a spectacular goal. Birmingham’s own schoolboy Jordon Mutch got the better of Shaun Cummings down the left, and his fiercely-hit cross was volleyed in by the jumping Stuart Parnaby at the far post. The goal will be reported as a Sebastian Larsson goal in many places due to an administrative error on the team sheets, but it was Parnaby who beat Taylor and deserves the credit for the goal.

Chelsea were desperately struggling to get anything going. Kakuta received a lot of possession but a combination of over-using tricks and flicks, and being out-muscled by taller and stronger men, meant Nouble was stranded for much of the half. Jacob Mellis came on for the final 20 minutes and immediately went close, making an incisive run in behind Asa Hall and sliding a left foot shot agonisingly past Colin Doyle’s left post.

With just under ten minutes to go, Birmingham put the game to bed, as Robert Gradwell rose well to a right-wing cross and arched his header back across goal, leaving Taylor with no chance. In stoppage time, Chelsea put together their best football of the match, a sweeping move from left to right giving an opening to Mellis that Doyle saved well, before Nouble headed the follow-up chance over.

Trying to look at the positives, a number of very young players added to their experience in a tough game against players who’ve played at the level they’re aspiring to get to. Shaun Cummings was largely excellent at right-back, performing as good as perhaps he’s ever played in that position. Liam Bridcutt, despite a shockingly poor start, grew into the game well, and Gael Kakuta showed enough in his demeanour and his dribbling to suggest he’ll see plenty of time at this level. And then there’s Michael Ballack’s return, which is good news for all followers of Chelsea.

Team: Taylor, Cummings, Pettigrew, Worley (Bruma 32), van Aanholt, Bridcutt (c), Ballack (Simmonds 45), Kakuta, Sawyer (Mellis 71), Nouble

More images from the game can be viewed on Dan Davies site here; www.ddpix.co.uk

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