A solitary goal from a player Chelsea decided wasn’t good enough for their academy settled an entertaining but frustrating game at Cobham on Saturday morning. Paris Cowan-Hall’s first half strike gave all three points to a Portsmouth side who were as good as anything The Blues have faced all season, and despite some spells of pressure from the home side, Pompey were good value for their win.
With the game falling only 38 hours after the finish of Thursday night’s FA Youth Cup tie, the youth team had an unfamiliar look to it, welcoming reserve regulars Shaun Cummings, Carl Magnay, Lee Sawyer and captain Liam Bridcutt into the XI. Clement once again utilised Chelsea’s favoured 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation spearheaded by prolific Italian forward Fabio Borini, with Nikki Ahmed used on the right of midfield in this game, in a season of positional experimentation for the Sri Lankan-born scholar.
Portsmouth came out lively, their four-man midfield showing impressive flexibility in their positional movement and fluidity. Right-back Ugo Udoji was making great gains down his side as Adam Phillip constantly refused to track his man, making things hard for left-back Jordan Tabor. Some direct balls into the channels over the top to use Cowan-Hall’s pace to full effect had Chelsea in trouble early on, and a high tempo pressing game was forcing Chelsea’s passing to be quicker and less accurate.
Indeed, it was the visitors who had the most notable of the early exchanges, a couple of half chances seen wide before Cowan-Hall was flagged offside as he lobbed Heimann impressively from an angle. Chelsea too, though, had a goal of their own disallowed, offside also correctly given against Fabio Borini. The Italian was also then involved in one of the half’s more unfortunate incidents, his turn and shot from 10 yards out smashed straight into the face of Portsmouth’s centre-back, knocking him clean out. The game was delayed some ten minutes in getting him treated and replaced.
The break in play perhaps benefited the visitors, as they caught Chelsea napping in scoring the game’s only goal on the half hour. A long ball from deep caught Chelsea’s defence holding a high line. Daniel Bogard appeared to be offside but the linesman was some 5 yards behind the play, and didn’t raise his flag. Bogard continued on towards goal completely free, and dinked an effort over the advancing Heimann. The ball was going wide until Cowan-Hall slid in at the far post to redirect the ball into the empty net.
Chelsea were struggling for creativity, although Lee Sawyer curled a lovely effort from wide on the edge of the box onto the crossbar. The goal would have been ruled out for offside, but credit should still go to Nick Jordan for a great tip onto the woodwork, which ensured the visitors would go in at half time ahead.
No immediate changes followed in terms of personnel and as a result play, so ten minutes into the second half Morten Nielsen was thrown on for the ineffective Borini. Chelsea’s focus changed to getting the ball wide to use the crossing talents of Tabor, and it almost paid dividends immediately. A picture perfect cross found the head of Ahmed six yards out, but his contact wasn’t true and the ball screwed high over the crossbar.
Portsmouth kept possession well and when they didn’t have it, forced Chelsea’s passing to places the hosts didn’t want to be. However, the pressure was increasing and Gael Kakuta’s introduction should have seen them step up a gear and find an equaliser. But clear chances weren’t being created, and half-chances were falling agonisingly short. Adam Phillip had a number of forays into the penalty area before being shut down by the impressive Andre Blackman, or falling apart through poor decision making. Too often Chelsea eyes were in the immediate ten yards around them when a look up would have seen a more useful option further away.
Another cross landed on Sawyer’s head but as he and Nielsen went for the same ball, the header lost direction and once more soared over the crossbar. Kakuta, rather quiet and marshalled well by the physically impressive Udoji, saw a 25 yard shot fly even further over. As Chelsea poured forward, they left themselves prone to mistakes at the back. Louis Castles, on as a sub for the impressive Cowan-Hall, first dispossessed a shaky Heimann inside his own area before the German scrambled a recovery, then the same player found himself clean through on goal but Heimann did far better this time, smothering an attempt to round the keeper.
With seconds remaining a deflected Kakuta cross fell inches from Cummings’ boot in the six yard box, but in general Chelsea could have played until next Saturday and not have scored in this game. A lack of a really dangerous striker has been apparent all season, but exceptional midfield creativity from Kakuta, Mellis and Philliskirk has seen them by this season. Missing all three (with the exception of Kakuta’s 25 minutes) saw a marked decline in the number of chances made, and the quality of supply to Borini. Bridcutt had a good game in midfield, showing his class, and Magnay and Tabor played well in defence, but nobody else in blue really impressed. Instead, the plaudits will deservedly go to the visitors in black.
Team: Heimann, Cummings, Magnay, Saville, Tabor, Bridcutt ©, Taiwo (Kakuta 65), Sawyer, Phillip (Hibbert 75), Ahmed, Borini (Nielsen 55)