Chelsea kicked off their 2008/09 Under 18 campaign with a thrilling late fightback to earn a point. A free kick from Jacopo Sala and a close range finish from Ben Gordon had hauled the Blues back into the game late on after strikes from Danny Shelley and Matt Freeman had put Alex ahead.
With the Cobham Cup coming up this weekend, new first-year scholars Marko Mitrovic, Kaby, and Vincenzo Camilleri – all participating in it – were unavailable for selection. With Conor Clifford on Ireland Under 19 duty, it meant Under 18 outings for Reserve midfielders Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods. With Camilleri resting, Daniel Philliskirk captained the team from centre-back, a position he slotted into against Wolves at the weekend.
Chelsea started well, carrying the ball well through midfield and making gains down the right. Fabio Borini was working the inside channels to great effect, but shooting opportunities were closed down well by the Crewe defenders. Jordan Tabor had the first shot in anger, picking up a loose ball at the far post and slamming a shot down Daniel Platt’s throat.
The half proved frustrating for Tabor, as he was constantly finding large spaces on his side of the pitch, but the play kept going down the right. Midway through the half Chelsea’s best chance of the match came from that side, as Sala’s cross picked out an unmarked Jack Saville on the run at the far post. With all the time in the world, the big centre-half could only send his header high over the bar.
Crewe had been closing down very well, a trend developing in most of Chelsea’s opposition, and looked useful along the right hand side. Jonathan Stephens had already missed a gilt-edged chance through clear on goal before stinging the hands of Niclas Heimann. From the resulting corner, a header crashed back off the crossbar.
To Crewe’s credit, they took advantage of their best spell and nabbed a lead ten minutes before half time. A chance was cleared to the edge of the box, where right-back Danny Shelley collected the ball. He showed fine composure and technique to sweep a shot low into the exposed side of Heimann’s goal and give his team the lead. Minutes later the impressive young defender struck a 30 yard effort towards the top corner, but it was well held by the German.
If Chelsea’s first half performance was disjointed, the start of the second was much the same. They had plenty of the ball, with Woods and Taiwo showing their experience at this level, but there was a lack of real urgency and a tendency to overplay things. All too often a chance would be available in the form of a lay-off for a shot, but the man in possession held onto the ball too long and eventually lost it.
The visitors were still displaying impressive courage and commitment in closing the play at every opportunity, and showing no mean ability when they had the ball. They took a 2-0 lead just before the hour mark in unfortunate style for the home team. A shot was blocked well by Saville but not only threw Heimann out of position, but landed perfectly inside the box for winger Matt Freeman. He sent a crisp effort high into the roof of the net to seal what they must have believed was an opening day three points.
It may well have been but for a slice of Chelsea luck two minutes later. Well on top, the Alex came forward strongly again, and drew a strong stop from Heimann. The ball fell to Stephens, who tapped into an empty net for what he thought was his second goal, but the linesman’s flag saved a certain defeat and gave Clement’s boys a little hope.
With Tom Hayden on for Jordan Hibbert, there was an attacking re-shuffle, with Nikki Ahmed moving into midfield and Jacopo Sala playing off Borini. It started to work, as things became a lot more slick and quicker, and chances started to come. The deficit was reduced with a quarter of an hour remaining, courtesy of Sala. Borini was tripped 25 yards from goal on the left hand side of a central position, and Sala stepped up to drop a beautifully flighted free kick low into the bottom corner.
It drove them on, and in front of watching staff and team-mates, even young academy boys under the age of ten cheering them on, they sensed the game was there for them to get something from. Borini had two half-chances, Tabor had one, and then the equaliser came. Tabor’s corner went across everyone to the far post where Ben Gordon popped up unmarked to slot the ball into the back of the net.
With less than five minutes left Jack Saville was the unfortunate victim of a clattering following a punched Heimann clearance, and so additional injury time made the death of the game dramatic as Chelsea gave their all searching for a winner. A pacy cross from Sala was just beyond the reach of a diving Ahmed header, whilst Gordon, now having pushed into Tabor’s position (with Tabor now organising the defence in Saville’s absence) almost scored his second. Borini had a shot well saved but rebounded, and the ex-Leeds defender picked the ball up with the net gaping, only to see his weak-footed effort cleared agonisingly off the line.
If the hosts had showed the levels of effort and intensity they did after going 0-2 down for the rest of the match, they might’ve had a comfortable win to start the season. Ultimately they can be pleased with a point against a strong Crewe team, but only pleased because of the comeback. They may well rue chances not to have won it, but there are plenty of positives to take away. Everyone played fairly well, with strong outings from all three former Leeds boys, and the two Italians, who continue to impress with every passing game.
Team: Heimann, Ahmed, Philliskirk ©, Saville (King 85), Gordon, Taiwo, Woods, Tabor, Sala, Hibbert (Hayden 60), Borini
Goals: Sala 75, Gordon 83