With attentions firmly turned elsewhere on a Champions League Wednesday, it would have been easy to forget that Chelsea’s Reserves were in midweek action with a rescheduled fixture away to West Ham. A young and makeshift team battled hard in poor conditions throughout but ultimately fell short to a goal in either half from the hosts.
With Jeffrey Bruma, Gael Kakuta and Fabio Borini in Milan on Champions League duty and Jacopo Sala only a sub after an achilles injury, Steve Holland’s options were reduced somewhat. Liam Bridcutt was forced to drop back into central defence, which meant a midfield start for Josh McEachran. Mitrovic started his first game at this level alongside Milan Lalkovic. The hosts featured Kieron Dyer, fresh from a first team outing at Old Trafford 24 hours previous, and there was also room for Junior Stanislas and Manuel Da Costa, whilst George Moncur also debuted in the reserves.
In heavy rain on a pitch which had only been cleared for action earlier in the afternoon, Chelsea started sluggishly and found themselves a goal behind inside five minutes. The pacy Anthony Edgar – cousin of Jermain Defoe – sped clear of the visiting defence and found himself faced with Rhys Taylor. The Welsh stopper denied him initially, but couldn’t hold the effort, and Edgar was able to continue and tuck the ball into the back of the net. It was a goal to reflect the early stages of the match, and the more experienced Hammers were enjoying domination over their younger counterparts.
Not that it would last very long. Against the run of play, Chelsea equalised after 18 minutes. In a rare foray forwards, Lalkovic found some space on the left side to work an opening which allowed him to send a cross into a teasing area. Marek Stech was unable to intercept and Mitrovic was available to clean up and level the scores with his 14th of the season in all competitions. It brought about a boost in confidence from Chelsea and they began to resemble a football team for the first time. Conor Clifford and Jacob Mellis both chanced their arm from distance in conditions which would test Stech, but ultimately the Czech Republic youth international was not worried by either effort.
With the scores tied and the rain slightly relenting, the game settled into something of a battle, with no major goalmouth action. Mitrovic was revelling in a battle with towering West Ham centre-backs N’Gala and Da Silva, whilst Clifford saw his name taken by referee Williams for a late tackle on Fabio Daprela. Both goalscorers found opportunities to give their teams an advantage as the game ticked towards half time but Edgar couldn’t meet a Stanislas cross, whilst Mitrovic struggled to get purchase on a far post effort created by McEachran. The scores would remain level at half time, and there was no real indication at this point which way the game was likely to swing.
Nikki Ahamed was introduced at the start of the second half, replacing Nemanja Matic (who, of course, is not registered for European duty) in midfield. The second period opened up very slowly and without incident until Jordan Spence put in a dangerous cross from the right which found nobody. Da Costa tried a shot from distance which fell tamely wide and it summed up the match up to that point. Lalkovic beat Dyer to the ball and threatened Stech from distance with an effort which drifted wide, but it was West Ham who would re-take the lead on the hour through one of their famous young sons.
Spence got forward again from right back and spun a dangerous ball across the face of goal. Chelsea were unable to defend it and Oliver Lee, son of former England and Newcastle midfielder Robert, tucked the ball away neatly at the far post. On the balance of play they probably deserved it but it was a little harsh on Chelsea after they had fought their way back into the game. Carl Magnay had to make a last-ditch challenge minutes later to deny Ahmed Abdulla the chance to make it three, and almost certainly put the game to bed.
However, with 25 minutes remaining, Chelsea were given a way back into the match. A tough tackle from Manuel Da Costa was followed by a reaction from Chelsea and the typical handbags ensued. Da Costa would be shown a straight red card, leaving the hosts to play the final quarter with a man down. Spence moved to centre back with Lee to right back, and Holland threw Gokhan Tore and Daniel Philliskirk on for Lalkovic and Ofori-Twumasi to try and seize the initiative. The pace definitely picked up, with Mitrovic causing worry and a clearance from N’Gala to prevent a goalscoring opportunity, and the hosts were firmly penned back as the game was set for a grandstand finish.
Chelsea kept up the tempo and caused problems, with both Edgar and Abdulla picking up a yellow card, but despite their best efforts the home side kept turning them away. N’Gala was a colossal presence in the resistance, keeping Mitrovic at bay as Holland’s boys looked to their Swedish striker as a focal point. They couldn’t find the goal to take a point back South with them, but can take heart from a battling performance in tricky conditions. It’s a disappointing result, but Mitrovic scoring on his full reserve debut and McEachran looking decent in a congested midfield will be the points to take away from this one.
Team: Taylor, Ofori-Twumasi (Philliskirk 73), Magnay, Bridcutt (c), Gordon, Clifford, Matic (Ahamed 45), McEachran, Mellis, Lalkovic (Gokhan Tore 71), Mitrovic
Goals: Mitrovic ’18
Booked: Clifford ’41