Saturday morning saw Chelsea’s 100% home record in the FA Premier Academy League this season come crashing to a halt as Crystal Palace came away from Cobham with a 3-0 victory, one which may have been slightly flattering in the margin of difference but was deserved nonetheless.
Coach Dermot Drummy’s selection was a more experienced one than in some recent weeks, with Milan Lalkovic, Billy Clifford, Billy Knott, Gokhan Tore and Danny Mills all playing having had reserve team football this season. Anton Rodgers picked up a rare start (although not through fault of his own and mainly international representation) with Kaby on international duty, whilst Kenny Strickland continued his 100% appearance record for the season. The pitch was wet from overnight rain but conditions were mild, if slightly overcast with the occasional breakthrough of sunlight as the game got underway.
Things started positively for the Blues but Anton Rodgers’ second minute disallowed goal for offside was to signal the start of an unfortunate series of events for Chelsea in the first half. He arrived at the far post to meet a cross from deep but had strayed ahead of his man and the decision was a correct one. The early pressure continued though and Billy Clifford got his head to the ball from a corner but it was only able to loop onto the top of Charlie Mann’s goalnet.
Despite their early sights of goal, Palace had the best chance inside the opening ten minutes when a deflected pass fell kindly to pacy striker Ibra Sekajja and although he should have scored, he slotted his finish wide of Haxhia’s goal. Missing such a gilt-edged chance usually brings about regret, but three minutes later the visitors had the lead when midfielder James Comley – who already has four senior appearances to his name – hit a shot from 25 yards which hit a Chelsea leg and deflected past Haxhia into the back of the net.
Undeterred and not behind for the first time at home this season, the Blues came right back and were within inches of equalising five minutes later. Clifford was afforded time and space on the edge of the area and whilst his low shot was tame in power, it was accurate enough to beat Mann’s despairing dive, but not enough to avoid hitting the post on its way to safety. He then became involved in an off-the-ball incident with defender Kieran Kenlock as Haxhia made a save at the near post to prevent the visitors doubling their advantage.
At the midway point of the half two chances – one at either end – summed up the match and settled it at the same time. Gokhan worked his way inside from the right and had time and space to pick his shot, but as he is often prone to, he merely thrashed at the ball and dragged his effort harmlessly wide. Within minutes at the other end a Palace corner was poorly defended and centre-back Jack Holland was able to steal in at the near post to guide an effort into the back of the net and give his team breathing room. It was an accomplished finish by a player who isn’t a natural goalscorer, and one which put Gokhan’s effort beforehand to shame.
Chelsea’s luck wasn’t for turning though, as they hit the woodwork twice more in the following five minutes. Clifford, who had a lively first half going forward, was denied for the second time by the frame of the goal when a header bounced off the crossbar, before Mitrovic turned and shot with venom only to see his effort rattle almost the very same spot. With seconds left in the first half, the Swedish striker had the best chance yet to reduce the arrears when he was awarded a penalty for what was admittedly a dubious push in the back whilst shielding the ball. Perhaps justice was done, however, when his poor spot kick was easily saved by Mann. Still, going in two behind at the break having had one disallowed, seen three hit the woodwork and missed a penalty whilst conceding a deflected effort must’ve stung.
Truth be told though, Chelsea didn’t deserve anything and despite a brief half time team talk with an early return to the pitch with changes, the second half was no better. Bobby Devyne replaced the ineffective Lalkovic and Tom Hayden played in an unusual holding role replacing Clifford, with Strickland taking the captaincy, but they started with their heads dropping and seven minutes into the second half they were well and truly buried when Comley showed his class by driving through the midfield into Chelsea territory, unleashing a 30 yarder which whizzed past Haxhia, who didn’t even move.
Chelsea’s tactic from that point appeared to be to put pressure on Mann by means of Danny Mills charging him from set pieces. The big centre-back made contact with the ex-Arsenal stopper three or four times in the second period and whilst one left him needing treatment, he wasn’t phased, nor was he threatened. Knott’s free kick from wide evaded everybody as the wind took hold of it, but it somehow also missed the far post. Aziz Deen-Conteh made another token sub appearance as Drummy went 4-2-4 but efforts were few and far between, and those that did arrive came from long range, such as Gokhan’s wild effort which looked closer than it probably was.
Mitrovic and Mills both headed wide from close range as Palace appeared content to play the ball around and simply cruise, saving their efforts for a match which might need it. With a three goal lead they had the comfort to drop down a gear and even then Chelsea were unable to threaten them. The game petered out in the final stages to end 3-0 to the visitors and it was very much a deserved win. At the end of the day Chelsea can point at bad luck but they were outplayed by a team who were more experienced, physically stronger, and simply better on the day. A number of players – Jerry Nnamani, Charlie Goldsmith, Sekajja, and Kenlock especially – looked like they could compete with men and were rarely flustered by Chelsea’s younger, weaker first-years. Nobody in blue can really say they had a good game, with Clifford the liveliest going forwards and Saville the best in defence, showing some good ground tackling, but there are some lessons to be learned after this one, and improvements to be made.
Team: Haxhia, Sampayo, Mills, Strickland, Knott, Saville, Rodgers (Deen-Conteh 60), B.Clifford (c) (Hayden 45), Lalkovic (Devyne 45), Gokhan Tore, Mitrovic