Chelsea’s Under-18s dropped two points at home in the FA Premier Academy League on Saturday morning, drawing 2-2 with Southampton. Having led 2-0 in the first half, defensive lapses and one error of monumental proportions allowed the visitors to come away with a deserved share of the spoils in what was an engrossing affair.
With the season’s stakes raising as the FA Youth Cup Semi Finals get closer, Dermot Drummy has been prone to using strong teams in league clashes so as to increase familiarity in personnel and tactics for the big games, meaning the schoolboys who would usually be featuring now ahead of their scholarships in the summer aren’t featuring as they have done in previous years. For this game, Drummy was without Daniel Mills Pappoe and Josh McEachran, who may have been earmarked for reserve duty on Monday night, but Rohan Ince continued his return at centre back alongside Aziz Deen-Conteh, with Ben Sampayo at an unfamiliar left back. Reserve teamers Conor Clifford, Jacopo Sala, Milan Lalkovic and Gokhan Tore all started in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a very attacking intent.
After a five-minute delay to kickoff, action got underway on a pleasant early spring morning in quiet Surrey, and Gokhan was quickly into his stride, testing right back Ben Martin’s ability to twist inside out whilst maintaining position. Inside the first ten minutes the newly-capped Turkish Under-21 international got inside and had a clear sight of goal, but in his attempt to shoot with his preferred left foot he got the direction wrong and turned it into a cross, instead of the shot which would’ve been more profitable.
Early blue pressure continued and goalkeeper Jack Dovey was called into action for the first time to deny captain Conor Clifford from a free-kick. The initial effort was spilled too easily and left Marko Mitrovic with a rebound, but from an awkward angle on his weaker foot, the Chelsea top scorer was unable to find the target. At the other end, Southampton’s first sight of goal came through Jordan Keegan, who teed up a sumptuous volley from the edge of the area, but found that the quality was matched by Sam Walker’s full-stretch dive to tip it away for a corner kick.
As the visitors began to assert themselves on proceedings, using their size and strength to complement their obvious technical ability, Chelsea grew frustrated. Kaby found himself in the referee’s notebook for persistent dissent, after growing unhappy at a decision given against him. The referee would have let him off with a stern word had the Portuguese actually acknowledged him, but after ignoring him on four occasions, Mr Scott showed the yellow card. The two midfields were going at it well, with both sides looking to spread the play to their impressive wingers.
With half an hour on the clock, the game became the Jacopo Sala show for a brief spell. The Italian, playing in a free role behind Mitrovic, had already seen plenty of the ball and began to chance his arm at goal. His first try was rather disappointing and merely stung Dovey’s hands, whilst the second was a more delicate effort, a chipped shot from the edge of the area using the outside of his right foot which the goalkeeper got up well to tip away. From the ensuing corner, the ball bobbled around as Southampton tried to clear, and when it fell to Chelsea’s number 10, he struck his effort cleanly to find the bottom corner to make it 1-0.
Clearly enthused by finding his accuracy, Sala continued to try his luck, finishing the half with an even half dozen efforts, although they gradually became more wayward and wasteful. For Southampton, Daryl McLean (brother of Peterborough foward Aaron McLean) beat Sampayo deep on the touchline and fizzed a ball across the box which went through everyone, including Walker’s legs, without so much as a touch along the way. With just minutes remaining in an entertaining first half, it looked for all the world as if there would be just one goal, but the final stages provided two more, and a major talking point.
Chelsea began by taking a 2-0 lead through Milan Lalkovic. The Slovakian youngster chased a lost cause into the corner and beat Martin before coming inside. He sent a cross-cum-shot into a dangerous area, and it bounced just in front of Dovey’s dive before finding the far corner of the net to give Lalkovic his third youth goal of the season. However, the one-goal margin was soon to be restored in calamitous circumstances for the home team. Ince tried to deal with a bouncing ball just outside of his six yard area by knocking it back to Walker, who was perilously close to his goal line. The giant stopper took a swipe at the ball and got nothing but air, and watched in agony as the ball spun into the back of the net. It was quite unbelievable, and ensured that the half time score was 2-1.
Drummy made two changes before the second half began, introducing Bobby Devyne and Anton Rodgers (who was being watched by dad Brendan) for Mitrovic and Conor Clifford, with Kaby taking the captaincy. As is so familiar at youth level, the second half lacked the intensity and pace of the first, with both teams now content to feel out their opponents and bide their time. Trailing as they were, Southampton looked to impose themselves on the game, with McLean proving a nuisance in possession, and striker Sam Hoskins an effective chaser without.
Fifteen minutes into the second period, Chelsea made their third change, bringing on Aldi Haxhia in goal for Walker. It appeared to have been a pre-planned change and nothing to do with Walker’s error, but the soon to be released Haxhia was to be picking the ball out of the back of his net before having touched it. No sooner had he entered the fray than Callum McNish dribbled his way through some half-baked challenges and remained composed enough to slide a lovely finish into the bottom corner. The scoreline reflected the game to that point and was fair on Southampton’s effort, even if it belied Chelsea’s wasted chances.
The Blues did regain their composure and came forward looking to restore the lead, but when chances fell to Sala, they inevitably missed the target by quite a margin. Devyne had a great sight of goal after Gokhan created the opening, but he snatched at it and ruined his moment, sending the ball flying over the crossbar. Whilst Chelsea pushed forward, their lightweight midfield (missing the steel of Clifford) was mis-matched and allowed Southampton to break. They so very nearly went ahead when McLean went down the right and delivered into a crowded area, where first McNish and then Robinson had sights at goal, but Haxhia made two impressive stops to keep parity.
Next up it was Lalkovic’s turn to have the goal at his mercy but waste it. It was Gokhan once again who carved the chance out, standing a cross up to the far post, but Lalkovic looked more surprised to have the chance than anything else and was unable to get real purchase on it. Whilst Gokhan may have been prone to holding onto the ball for far too long, he was at least creating chances. For Kaby, Sala, Lalkovic and Devyne, they were all guilty of taking too many touches and not keeping the play moving, which was to prove far easier to defend against for the visitors. Billy Clifford appeared to be the only player intent on changing this, but too few of his team-mates heeded the advice of the right-back.
The game finished 2-2 with no further openings of note, and despite Chelsea’s profligacy in front of goal, Southampton had deserved their draw for their effort and for some of their approach play, which was very watchable. The best in blue would have to be Rohan Ince, who was imperious at the back, reading the play superbly and transitioning defence into attack with some marauding runs right through the middle of the pitch. He rarely lost a one on one battle and used the ball well throughout, looking back to full fitness. The back four all had good games by and large, and whilst the front six looked good in spells, their inconsistencies on the day meant it was one point instead of three.
Team: Walker (Haxhia 60), B.Clifford, Ince, Deen-Conteh, Sampayo, C.Clifford (Rodgers 45), Kaby, Sala, Lalkovic, Gokhan Tore, Mitrovic (Devyne 45)
Goals: Sala 30, Lalkovic 42
Southampton: Dovey, Martin, Argent, Robinson, Racine, Tafazolli, McLean, McNish, Hoskins, Keegan, Holder-Spooner
Sub Used: Preen