A Chelsea team that could easily be described as makeshift battled hard on Saturday morning but visitors Watford battled harder and came away with a 3-2 victory in a tense and exciting end-to-end game.
With coach Paul Clement deciding to rest key names ahead of Wednesday night’s FA Youth Cup Semi Final second leg away to Aston Villa, some of the other academy names got the chance to shine. Jacob Mellis started at centre-back alongside Billy-Joe King, an unfamiliar position for the Nottingham-born attacking midfielder but one he has played before this season. Tom Taiwo captained the team with Lee Sawyer in midfield and Ricardo Fernandes given the number 10 shirt as he continues his comeback from a horrible injury, and up front Morten Nielsen was deployed on the left wing with Frank Nouble getting a rare chance to play in his natural striker’s role.
The pitch was soft and breaking up underfoot, which made the quality of the early stages rather poor, but the players were keen to adapt and begin asserting themselves. It was Watford who had the first real chance of note, as Liam Henderson broke the offside trap high in the Chelsea half. Nick Heimann came off his line just in time but the clearance only found another yellow shirt. Four shots later, and Heimann had managed to get in the way of each, and eventually smother the ball inside the safety of his penalty area.
The Hornets then had another half chance, breaking away with pace from a Chelsea corner with the ball at the feet of Lewis Young (brother of Watford youth product Ashley Young, now of Aston Villa and England). His speed took him clear of any support, however, and Chelsea were able to smother the opportunity and try and come into the game themselves. They were forced into a change on the half hour though, a challenge from behind on Nielsen saw a shin injury sideline the Dane, as Fabio Borini replaced him but stayed wide, leaving Nouble up front.
With a little over five minutes remaining in the first half, Chelsea went into the lead probably against the general run of play, despite a possession advantage. Lee Sawyer carried the ball through the midfield and sent a lovely slide-rule pass down the inside-left channel for Adam Phillip to run onto. The boy with the striking orange boots coolly rounded Jonathan North and slotted into the empty net to continue his fine run of recent form, scoring in three straight games.
With the lead at half time, Chelsea made their second change, replacing Fernandes with Jordan Hibbert. The diminutive Portuguese midfielder had shown glimpses of class in the first half but he’s very slowly working his way back after only a year out and to come through unscathed is another positive step. Unfortunately, Chelsea couldn’t come through the opening stages of the second half unscathed, conceding twice inside ten minutes thanks largely to some incredibly sloppy play.
The first came three minutes in. Billy Gibson did well down the left hand side after marginally escaping an offside flag, and cut the ball back for the advancing Dale Bennett to score his first of the season from eight yards out. A few minutes later a second Watford player scored his first of the season, disappointingly for the Blues from a corner. Centre-back Aaron Beech stole around to the far post unmarked and nodded in off the crossbar to reward the positive play of the visitors.
The quick turnaround in the scoreline changed the attitudes of the players. Watford began playing with more and more confidence whilst Chelsea were continually struggling to build attacks. Just after the hour mark the third Watford goal arrived to put any chances of a Chelsea win to bed. The high line operated by a Chelsea defence with two midfielders in it, not to mention a lack of experience playing together, was allowing Watford in behind too often, and after a number of similar chances striker Marvin Sordell rounded Heimann and tucked home. Heimann had been slow off his line all game and this time he was again found wanting.
In desperation, Danny Philliskirk was thrown on as Chelsea’s last sub, for King as Clement went with a 3-2-2-3 formation, and no recognised centre-back. It wasn’t likely to be a problem defensively though, as the visitors put ten men behind the ball at all times, leaving just Henderson to fight for scraps up front. The game took on all the characteristics of Chelsea’s FA Cup defeat at Barnsley, as time after time the team in the lead repelled Blues attacks that had little craft to them. Sawyer was carrying the ball through the middle every time looking for an option, and Mellis drove forward from the back with Taiwo covering. Nouble, by now having moved to the right wing, was the star for Chelsea late on though, desperate for the ball every time and causing all manner of problems for the defence. It was only right, therefore, that he reduced the deficit to one with five minutes left, fooling two defenders with multiple stopovers before curling a lovely left footed effort in from the right side of the area.
The referee allowed what seemed like an age before eventually blowing the final whistle, and despite a long and continued spell of pressure, Chelsea succumbed to another league defeat. However, some very positive performances can be found in Tabor’s showing at left-back, Phillip continuing his goalscoring form, and an ever-dangerous outing from Nouble.
Team: Heimann, Ahmed, Mellis, King (Philliskirk 65), Tabor, Taiwo ©, Sawyer, Fernandes (Hibbert 45), Nielsen (Borini 30), Phillip, Nouble
Goals: Phillip 38, Nouble 85