Chelsea returned to home weekend Under-18 action for the first time in a month to host Cardiff City in a rescheduled fixture which had been affected by the FA Youth Cup run. With the first leg of the Final looming large this week, a rotated squad allowed for Bobby Devyne to take the opportunity to impress, grabbing two first half goals in a 3-2 win.
Indeed, Sam Walker was, for the second week running, the only player who will play against Aston Villa to feature. Dermot Drummy gave starts to schoolboys Todd Kane and Nathaniel Chalobah in defence, the latter starting after scoring as a second half replacement at Leicester last week. Alongside the 15 year-old Chalobah was 19 year-old Kenny Strickland, quite the age difference. Nikki Ahamed and captain Daniel Philliskirk both continued to receive playing time in a diamond midfield anchored by Anton Rodgers, whilst Devyne was partnered by Philipp Prosenik in attack.
Devyne may well have had a successful day but it didn’t start well, as he missed a glorious chance for an early opener in a moment he will want to forget. Philliskirk broke up play inside the Cardiff third and carried it deep into the area. With the Kenyan forward open on the edge of the six yard box, the ball was duly squared to him for a tap-in, but a horrible left-footed scuff saw the ball go well wide of the target. It was the most gilt-edged of chances and with only Chalobah threatening from consecutive set pieces in the early stages, it was one which will have undoubtedly preyes on Chelsea minds.
The match had an end-of-season feel, with both sides approaching the final matches of the campaign having nothing to play for in the league. Cardiff offered nothing going forward and Chelsea were content to probe, playing the ball from side to side, looking to get Kane and Ben Sampayo forward from full-back, providing width in the diamond formation. The early issues arose when Sampayo looked to come inside onto his preferred right foot, which funnelled everything into a narrow part of the pitch, and prevented penetration. When Chalobah swapped sides with Strickland in the middle, he looked to play passes wider of Sampayo to force the left foot into action, and it worked, allowing Chelsea to get in behind the visitors and force the play.
Prosenik had been quiet for the opening quarter of the match but came alive with a fiercely-struck left-footed effort from the edge of the area which goalkeeper Reece Ottley beat away well, but it was the creative side of his game which saw the Blues take the lead shortly before the half hour mark. After they won the ball back on the halfway line the Austrian played a slide-rule ball in behind for Devyne to run onto. Picking it up towards the left of the penalty area, a cheeky heel flick created the space inside for a shot. Ottley was beaten but the ball came back off the post, yet not to be denied, Devyne stayed alert to follow up and tap into the back of the net.
Less than a minute later the lead was doubled through the same man. Chelsea came forward having robbed Cardiff of possession from the restart and when Devyne found himself unchallenged on the edge of the area, he set himself up for a shot. It was low and accurate, but despite lacking pace found the bottom corner. Ottley may claim he was unsighted, but will look at the goal as one he will have wanted back. Nonetheless, the lead was 2-0, and although Cardiff may have felt it was an unfair reflection of proceedings, they had offered nothing and continued to, for the next ten minutes at least.
Confidence was flowing in the Chelsea ranks and further opportunity arrived for both Prosenik and Rodgers. The former collided with Ottley and was unable to direct an aerial attempt on target, whilst the Irish midfielder curled a free kick from wide onto the top of the crossbar. It looked for all the world a stroll in the park for Drummy’s boys, but a five minute spell before half time brought them firmly to earth with a resounding bump. The deficit was halved minutes before the break by captain Nathaniel Jarvis, who showed good strength and technique to get into position before crisply beating Walker, although there may have been a deflection. Chelsea appeared to be slacking off with the break approaching and from a stoppage time corner, they saw their lead wiped out. The ball was poorly cleared to the edge of the area, and a well-stuck volley was turned past Walker by Stephen Last, who stuck a leg out to leave the giant stopper stranded.
The parity restored by the Welsh was hardly deserved, but they had fought their way back into a game they had never been in and one would imagine that the Chelsea dressing room will not have been a happy place during the interval. The second half started as most second halves do at academy level, with a slower pace and a lack of tenacity. On this day, it meant the next fifteen minutes were rather sleep-inducing, but a moment of individual brilliance created the chance for the hosts to restore their lead.
It came from a Cardiff corner, which was cleared to Todd Kane on the edge of his own area. Ignoring an outlet pass to Philliskirk he accelerated away from two men and headed for the space in the middle of the pitch. With the Bluebirds committed forwards he found a lot of green to run into and continued on his way, beating another man in the middle of the pitch before being forced wide on the edge of the area. As men flooded back he had to hold the ball up, but found space to beat the right back to the touchline and cut the ball back for Philliskirk to slam into the back of the net. It was a quite brilliant show of effort, pace and skill from the schoolboy, and one which had turned the game back in his side’s favour.
Back ahead, the ball began to move around the blue shirts with more zip and pace, and opportunities arose for Devyne to secure himself the match ball. He was, however, denied by two blocks, the second a rather impressive one inside the six yard box, before he was withdrawn having picked up an injury. With all outfield substitutes named playing for the Under-16s, it meant John Swift was called from the pitch up the hill to enter the fray, slotting into midfield with Philliskirk offering more by way of attack. He quickly got stuck in, making one or two meaty tackles within minutes of his arrival.
With Chelsea content to retreat into what was essentially a five-man midfield, Cardiff began to throw everything forward. Tricky forward Billy Taylor carried the charge but grew frustrated, and chances fell to goalscorer Jarvis. He found himself on the end of two crosses, both headed over, whilst appeals for a penalty were loud enough to be heard back in Wales but there wasn’t much in Sampayo’s challenge to convince Mr Taafe to award a spot kick. Walker remained calm in his area to pluck a number of high balls out of the sky and Chelsea came away with a 3-2 victory.
Most impressive on the day was full-back Kane, who summed up his performance with his match-winning assist. Full of energy and vigour, he was keen from the off and showed solid contributions at both ends of the pitch on what was his first Under-18 appearance at Cobham. His schoolboy counterpart Chalobah was neat and tidy but struggled late on against the stockier Jarvis. Elsewhere, Rodgers and Saville kept the game flowing with sharp passing, whilst Ahamed and Prosenik were perhaps quieter than they would have liked. At the very least, Saturday showed that whilst the first choice are ready for the Youth Cup, there is plenty in reserve.
Team: Walker, Kane, Chalobah, Strickland, Sampayo, Rodgers, Saville, Ahamed, Philliskirk (c), Prosenik, Devyne (Swift 80)
Goals: Devyne ’29, ’30, Philliskirk ’60