Chelsea’s final match of the 2007/08 Reserve season ended in an exciting 1-1 stalemate with late drama. Franco Di Santo appeared to have given Brendan Rodgers’ team all three points with ten minutes remaining but Aston Villa scored a deserved equaliser to leave them still in pole position to win the Reserve League South and meet Liverpool in the Playoff Final.Steve Sidwell and Claudio Pizarro once again dipped down for Reserve duty, their senior squad appearances being limited to almost nil in the remaining games this season such is the importance of each and every one. Jimmy Smith moved to centre-back and captained the side, whilst Patrick van Aanholt was welcomed back from FA Youth Cup duty, as were subs Michael Woods, Miroslav Stoch, and Gael Kakuta. Villa featured fringe players in Wayne Routledge and Moustapha Salifou, and started Shaun Maloney up front.
Chelsea started very brightly and could’ve had the lead twice inside the first ten minutes, with both opportunities falling to Di Santo. His first attempt was a half chance from the edge of the box which he worked well to create but was asking a lot to score from, but the second was a big miss. Pizarro picked the ball up 30 yards out and drove towards the edge of the box. His well-struck shot was parried by Stuart Taylor into the path of the young Argentine, who tried to smash the ball into the roof of the empty net but cleared the crossbar by some distance.
The game quickly began to swing from end to end, helped by extremely long kicks from each goalkeeper. It was Stuart Searle in Chelsea’s goal who was called upon next to make a save though, seeing Routledge’s dipping 25 yard volley late and making an agile stop for a corner. It was a rare first half chance for the visitors though, as Chelsea had much the better of the play. Di Santo was impressively winning numerous flick-ons and Pizarro’s link-up play was of the quality expected of a player too good for this level.
After a number of forays down each flank just fell shy of a proper final delivery, and a comical mishap between Isaiah Osbourne and his goalkeeper that nearly resulted in catastrophe, Chelsea again went close with ten minutes remaining in the half. Sidwell tried his luck with a fierce effort from 30 yards that saw Taylor equal to it with an unorthodox but nonetheless brilliant save. The ginger midfielder went close again minutes later as he nodded Younghusband’s corner over from 10 yards out.
Rodgers made a half-time change, bringing on Stoch for the hard-working but ultimately ordinary Fabio Ferreira, and it almost immediately paid off. Di Santo played the diminutive Slovakian in down the right, and he had all the time in the world to pick his spot. Perhaps that was the problem, as he took too long and only found the near post side netting to give Villa a huge let-off.
Villa’s changes had given them control of the game, and the introduction of winger Harry Forrester helped even more. Goalkeeper Searle, though, began to shine, and was keeping his team in the game. Delfouneso had a good chance smothered at his feet, before Forrester’s wonderfully-struck 30 yard free kick was palmed out of the top corner brilliantly.
Whilst he was busy having a fine game keeping shots out, nobody really expected Searle to provide the assist for Chelsea’s opener, but on a night featuring a number of massive kicks it wasn’t so surprising that one led to Chelsea’s opener with ten minutes left. Villa’s defence allowed the ball to bounce 25 yards out and Di Santo’s alertness and anticipation saw him get to the ball ahead of the onrushing Taylor. He nodded the ball past him and had enough power on it to get it over the line before Nathan Baker could get there to clear, scoring his seventh goal in eight games.
Villa fought straight back and were nearly instantly level. A cross from the left found Delfouneso’s head but he mis-timed his attempt and could only deflect it on towards Routledge at the far post. He brought the ball under control and struck a stinging effort past Searle, but not past Patrick van Aanholt on the goalline, making a last-ditch clearance.
It only staved off the inevitable for a minute though, as they got their deserved equaliser on 84 minutes. Forrester swung in a devilishly tricky ball right underneath the crossbar and with Searle helpless to even move, Baker crashed a header in from a yard out.
The teenage centre-back almost had an unlikely and sensational winner with seconds to go, sending a full left-foot volley flying towards the top corner, but Searle pulled off yet another superb save to keep Chelsea level and earn them a point, extending their unbeaten run to five games to close out a season that started well, was poor and forgettable in the middle, and finished off with a positive feeling for next season.
Team: Searle, Cummings, Smith ©, Magnay, van Aanholt, Tejera (Woods 52), Sidwell, Ferreira (Stoch 45), Younghusband (Kakuta 70), Pizarro, Di Santo
Goals: Di Santo 80
Booked: Di Santo 55, Sidwell 76