YOUTH NO MATCH FOR EXPERIENCE AS RESERVES TUMBLE
A youthful Chelsea Reserve team went down to their second defeat in a row on Monday night against a vastly experienced Stoke City side. Goals from Tom Soares and Danny Pugh late in the game gave Mark O’Connor’s team a deserved 2-0 victory, but the scoreline and game could have been so much difference had Miroslav Stoch not missed a penalty.
Brendan Rodgers welcomed back Rhys Taylor and Miroslav Stoch from international duty, and with a shortage of defenders used captain Liam Bridcutt in defence with Ben Gordon making a reserve start at left-back. Brazilian midfielder Mineiro was used in the anchor role in midfield after making his senior debut on Saturday, and Fabio Borini continued in attack. A team with an average age of 19 (including the 33 year-old Brazilian) faced a Stoke team with an average age of 26 with all eleven having Premiership experience under their belts.
Chelsea weren’t just giving up experience either, they were giving up height and weight at every position, a massive challenge for the team, no more evident than that faced by Borini against the giant pair of Leon Cort and Ibrahima Sonko. Stoke’s size advantage saw them play a more direct game than Chelsea in unfavourable weather conditions, the hosts trying to play neat and tidy football with movement in the spaces to compensate for their lack of size. Jacob Mellis was trying to play in a role between Stoke’s defence and midfield, and the ball was aimed towards the feet of Stoch and Scott Sinclair at every opportunity.
Neither team could get settled early, Stoke doing the better job of using the ball, Glenn Whelan trying to make things happen from midfield. Chances were few and far between until midway through the half when Rhys Taylor made two superb saves in quick succession. The first came from a Potters breakaway after a Chelsea corner, leaving Tom Soares wide open. Gordon couldn’t get back quickly enough but Taylor saved a low fierce shot superbly. Shortly after a cross from the byline fell to Whelan, but Taylor was again equal to the effort. It was the start of a busy but highly impressive night for the teenage stopper.
It sparked the home team into action, and five minutes later they had their best chance of the half. Stoch came inside off the right wing and flicked a cute ball around the corner to meet Mellis’ run. Advantage was played as Stoch was taken out, but Mellis could only fire over. Rodgers’ tactic had been to have through balls played into space and work the angles so that Mellis and Woods could latch onto them, but this was the only occasion the plan came to fruition in a first half bereft of real creativity.
The second half started in the same wet conditions. The rain wasn’t torrential but hung in the air swirling, making running tough and footing unsure. Inside five minutes Stoke had gone closer than either team had in the first half, Soares hitting a loose ball crisply along the turf but saw it hit the post and run across the goal to safety. At the other end, Stoch was beginning to look more lively, donning orange boots for the second half and running at Andy Wilkinson. He got to the byline but had no options to pull the ball back to.
Stoke were content to allow Chelsea to play the ball around at the back but any attempt to penetrate further was swiftly denied. Mineiro kept possession well but the ball was getting no further up the pitch than him. That is, at least, until the 62nd minute. A cross-field pass to Stoch on the halfway line was running away from the Slovakian but he kept it in with a slide. Upon regaining his standing, he flicked a ball towards Ben Gordon on the overlap. He was tackled by Wilkinson just inside the area, and despite appearing to win the ball, a penalty was given.
Stoch took the responsibility, having previously netted against Liverpool and AC Milan in the same fashion this season, but his effort was poor, low and central, and Steve Simonsen saved easily. It seemed to deflate the players and the few hundred crowd (although Stoke were surprisingly well represented), and after Michael Woods arrived late in the box to draw a good save from Simonsen, the experience of the visitors began to tell.
Taylor was forced into an extended low save from a skidding effort by Pericard and then saw Whelan fire wide of the near post. Pressure was mounting with Chelsea labouring at the other end and with a little over ten minutes to go, Stoke led. A ball in from the left ran across the box to find Soares open at the far post. He stepped inside a tackle and passed the ball under Taylor with his left foot. The lead was deserved and coming, and in response Morten Nielsen was thrown on to try and restore parity.
Instead, Stoke took full control and a missile of a shot from Pericard rattled the post after a superb touch from Taylor. The lead was duly doubled in stoppage time when Pericard’s pull-back to the edge of the box was met by ex-Man Utd youngster Danny Pugh, who swept it into the corner. Sergio Tejera came close to reducing the lead with a right footed shot arrowing to the top corner but Wilkinson headed it away to preserve the clean sheet and put the final nail in the coffin of Chelsea’s defeat.
It will ultimately be a beneficial experience for the young Blues but on the night it was cold and frustrating. Stoch was lively but nobody else had much luck against players bigger, stronger, and more savvy than them. The defence handled themselves well, especially Bridcutt and Taylor, but despite there not being an evident gulf in class, there was a step up Chelsea have to make. Last year’s winter months saw poor results, a lack of goalscoring and questionable performances. Hopefully a similar tale does not befall them this season.
Team: Taylor, Ofori-Twumasi, Bruma, Bridcutt (c), Gordon (Nielsen 87) , Mineiro, Woods (Tejera 76), Mellis, Stoch, Sinclair, Borini