Three of the best goals you’re ever likely to see in football – especially in the same game – gave Chelsea a third straight Under 18 victory and their first in the Academy League over Portsmouth, a team that denied them a win on three occasions last season. Pompey’s resolute nature and the incessant rain at Cobham made the task at hand a tricky one, decided by three moments of brilliance.
On Wednesday night in the comeback win over Fulham, Paul Clement was able to call on the likes of Michael Woods, Tom Taiwo and Sergio Tejera with no Reserve match, but since Brendan Rodgers’ boys face Stoke this coming Monday, it was back to the younger crop of scholars. Jan Sebek returned in goal, Vincenzo Camilleri came into the centre of defence alongside first-time captain Billy-Joe King. Tom Hayden’s return at right-bac pushed Nikki Ahmed into an attacking midield alongside Kaby and Jacopo Sala, with Conor Clifford and Rohan Ince in behind them. Fresh off the back of his hat-trick against Fulham, Frank Nouble led the line again.
The whistle to sound the opening of the match also acted as the signal for the heavens to open. The rain didn’t let up (and quite probably still hasn’t as you’re reading this) and made the affair a tough one to play in, and indeed to watch. Players struggled with their footing, their passing, and their decision-making, with moves breaking down in the middle of the park. Chelsea kept the ball better at the back but struggled to move it through a tall and strong visiting midfield.
The most lively Blues were the two in colourful footwear. Kaby and Sala (orange and green respectively for those interested) came short for the ball and turned usefully, but Nouble was somewhat isolated and in troublesome conditions had a hard time making things stick. Portsmouth looked prepared to play on the break, freeing Paris Cowan-Hall down the flanks with the pace that caused such trouble in this fixture last season. He was supported by the giant pair of Tom Kilbey and Ryan Gazet du Chattelier, but the first proper chance fell to ex-Barcelona youngster Pablo Navas-Alors, who had the ball settled on his left foot 12 yards out on the left. It was struck cleanly and high to the near post, where Sebek was found to bat it to safety.
Chances for Chelsea were few and far between. Jordan Tabor and Kaby sent in some enticing corners but the only time any of them came to anything was five minutes before half time, when Ince showed nice skill to tee up a volley which went close, but comfortably enough over for Pompey goalkeeper Tommy Smith. With the half time whistle, the players went into the relative warmth of the academy building for a change of shirts and to figure out how to break the deadlock, or at the very least create something of note.
It took less than five second half minutes for the first goal to arrive, and whilst it wasn’t necessarily well created, it was taken superbly. Portsmouth failed to deal with a high ball on the edge of their own box, and as it dropped on the edge of the ‘D’, Conor Clifford struck it sweetly with his weaker left foot, sending it dipping viciously into the top corner. The young Dubliner scored perhaps the goal of his life against Ipswich a few weeks ago and now has an equally stunning effort on his weaker foot to his name, a quite sublime goal.
Portsmouth should have levelled soon after Clifford’s goal, Navas-Alors crossing from the left with some pace. As it flashed past Sebek at the near post Cowan-Hall met it on the volley in the six yard box, but sent it flying over the crossbar. It was to prove to be a big miss, as just past the hour mark, Chelsea went 2-0 ahead with an even finer goal.
It started from a visiting corner which was cleared towards Nikki Ahmed. He took it down the right at pace, running at his man from inside his own half towards the goal. As Hayden overlapped him Ahmed took it inside, and from some 25 yards shot off the outside of his right foot, bending the ball into the top corner. It was the sort of goal that deserves to win the club’s Goal of the Season award for such individual brilliance, and having the audacity and ability to pull it off. Ahmed took off in a full sprint of a celebration, sliding across the wet turf deservedly delighted with his strike.
A second quality goal had deflated Ian Woan’s team. They hadn’t played badly but were staring defeat in the face off the back of two goals they could do absolutely nothing about. Another cross into the Chelsea goalmouth saw a melee of bodies go for it but the ball pop up over the bar again, but otherwise Sebek wasn’t being exceptionally tested. Dutch youngster Nadir Cifti, on as a sub, ran through the middle with strength and guile and showed the intelligence to get off a low skidding shot on the wet surface, but Sebek held it well, everyone in blue desperate for their first clean sheet of the season.
Clement began to use some fresher, drier legs, using Marko Mitrovic, Ben Gordon and Josh MacEachran, and two of them almost combined for a goal. MacEachran slipped a ball past the back four of Pompey to Mitrovic, who rounded Smith but was sent wide. As he tried to return the pass, the visitors got enough men back to clear the ball to safety.
The seal was put on a superb performance with a third superb goal. Nouble collected the ball out on the left and ran at James Hurst. He was shown inside but continued his run towards the edge of the area, and when he realised he wasn’t going to be closed down he fired a ferocious shot which crashed in off the crossbar. It was Nouble’s sixth goal in four games and his 9th of a very impressive season to date (he also leads the Under 18s in assists).
The team may have had more dramatic wins, or more comprehensive wins so far this season, but today will go down as one of the most satisfying. The three spectacular goals will help that, but perhaps the most important thing was that at the 11th time of trying, Chelsea kept a clean sheet. With the best attack (statistically) in the country, shoring things up at the back end has been a key concern and much progress was shown today, with Camilleri putting in a strong outing in particular. Sebek looked more confident than in previous outings, whilst Conor Clifford was superb throughout.
After putting together a winning run of three games in a row, the young Blues can look to build confidence ahead of their next game against Norwich in a fortnight, as they prepare for their return to FA Youth Cup action in December. Performances like this will give hope that they can go one better than last season and win the whole thing.
Team: Sebek, Hayden, Camilleri, King (c), Tabor (Gordon 65), Ince, Clifford, Ahmed, Sala (MacEachran 75), Kaby (Mitrovic 65), Nouble
Goals: Clifford 49, Ahmed 61, Nouble 80