Chelsea’s first academy friendly of the pre-season started out as your typical preparation match, with little energy and cohesion, but finished in a flurry of goals, drama, and a sense of importance as if the season rested upon it. A draw was probably a fair reflection after an energy-sapping 90 mins, but there were a lot of positives to take for the Blues.
Regular Under 16 coach Dermott Drummy took charge for this game, and lined up with a shape that was slightly familiar to Chelsea, but instead of resembling the typical 4-3-3, it was more of a 4-4-2. Jan Sebek made a long-awaited return in goal, whilst Vincenzo Camilleri partnered Jack Saville at centre-back. Conor Clifford captained the team alongside Jordan Hibbert in central midfield, and Jordan Tabor and Frank Nouble flanked Fabio Borini and a trialist striker by the surname Pires.
QPR’s team looked a little on the short side but well organised and confident, and pressed Chelsea early, causing breakdowns in their midfield play, and forcing them to hit longer balls to a quiet Pires. The Blues weren’t looking impressive and fell behind after just ten minutes to Rangers’ first chance. Some fantastic footwork in the box drew Sebek out, and as the ball flashed across him he could only watch as it was turned in for the opener.
After the goal, the Hoops sat back a bit and tried to play on the break, but were caught by a well-operated offside trap at the back by the hosts. Chelsea came forward with more confidence and had their first attempt of note when Clifford drove high and rising from 30 yards. Nouble had a weak appeal for a penalty turned down, and Pires a looping header saved easily. The closest they came to a goal before the break was a freak incident – Tabor’s cross was sliced and appeared to be heading over the bar, but instead landed on it, but fell to safety in the form of a QPR shirt.
Two changes followed at the break for Chelsea (Rangers having made numerous during the first half), with Aldi Haxia replacing Sebek in goal, and Tom Hayden coming on for the disappointing trialist. The latter switch allowed Nikki Ahmed to push into a more advanced position, and Nouble into attack alongside Borini. The Blues immediately began to make gains along the right side, with Hayden and Ahmed keen to press and force the issue.
Chances weren’t really coming though, and only a Borini free kick which went comfortably over caused any slight worry for the visitors. At the other end, Chelsea were caught on the break and found some luck as a shot beat Haxia but rebounded off the post into his arms. More changes followed, with Rohan Ince and Milan Lalkovic making the step up from the Under 16s and given a chance at this level (both are still Under 16 eligible for this season).
The changes had the desired effect, and with just under 20 minutes remaining Chelsea finally got level. Some fine dribbling from Ahmed took him into the area, and although his fierce shot was saved, it was across the goalkeeper, and it allowed Hibbert to prod home from a matter of yards. After a much improved second half, the goal was deserved, but the parity was shortlived.
The Blues still had the pressure, but tiring legs at the back and Camilleri having gone off (with Ince now at centre-back) allowed holes to open, and the pacy visiting counter-attack paid dividends with ten minutes left. Ince couldn’t overcome his man in a one on one battle and Haxia was beaten just inside his near post, with a possible deflection as Ince made a desperate tackle. The goal could easily have deflated a team not at 100% match fitness yet, but with more changes including the re-introduction of Clifford and latterly Nouble, they found a second wind and another equaliser.
The catalyst this time was Lalkovic. Sporting bright orange boots to match his bright spiky hair, he bore more than a passing resemblance to his fellow Slovakian teammate Miroslav Stoch, and had a similar impact. His tricky and quick dribbling along the right hand side inside the last five minutes was causing all sorts of problems, and it proved ultimately too much. From inside the box his cutback was dangerous, and forced a QPR defender to turn the ball past his own keeper from close range.
The drama was only just beginning to unfold though. With the game creeping into stoppage time, Lalkovic again went down the right, freed by a perfect pass from Ahmed. His first time cross to the near post was absolutely perfect and Nouble latched onto it with a fierce finish for what appeared to be the most dramatic of winners. The big forward took the goal brilliantly, showing instinct and poise when most needed. Unfortunately, this game was to have yet another swing, as QPR went straight down the other end, got in behind again, and scored an equaliser of their own with the very last touch of the match.
So the pre-season opens in exciting fashion for the Under 18s, who now go on to face Brighton & Hove Albion at Cobham next Saturday, August 2nd. Positives to take from today are plentiful, with many players putting in a good performance and showing impressive fitness levels. Under the watching eye of Carlos Pracidelli, who has not joined Chelsea’s senior staff in Asia, Nikki Ahmed, Jordan Hibbert, and Fabio Borini played very well, as did Nouble. Milan Lalkovic provided a dynamic directness which could see him step into the Under 18s on a regular basis, and Billy-Joe King looked as good as he ever has at left back. It’s also very nice to see the return of Jan Sebek in goal after a troubled first year at the club.
Team: Sebek (Haxia 45), Ahmed, Camilleri (Clifford 75), Saville (Tabor 85), King, Clifford © (Ince 65), Hibbert, Tabor (Lalkovic 70), Nouble, Borini, Pires (Hayden 45)
(some substitutes may be missing due to nature of rolling subs used)
Goals: Hibbert 73, Own Goal 88, Nouble 90