Our Under-21s were beaten for only the second time this season as Everton came from behind to win 3-2 at Goodison Park.
The Blues appeared to be cruising after racing into a 2-0 lead thanks to an early strike by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and a brilliant goal by John Swift, and we should have been out of sight by the break as chance after chance continued to go begging.
Everton were given a glimmer of hope soon after the restart when Hallam Hope scored from close range, and he drew them level with his second of the game following a poor clearance by Jamal Blackman.
The home side were then awarded a penalty after Blackman had brought down Courtney Duffus, and while the Chelsea goalkeeper saved the resulting kick from John Lundstram, Chris Long scored from the rebound to win it for the hosts.
Chelsea manager Dermot Drummy made just one change to the side which beat Norwich City 2-0 just over a week ago, with Alex Kiwomya coming in for the player who scored both goals against the Canaries, Josh McEachran, who has since moved to Watford on loan. Kiwomya’s inclusion allowed John Swift to drop back into a slightly deeper role, while Islam Feruz and Isaiah Brown both started. Nathan Ake captained the side, with youngsters Dominic Solanke and Kasey Palmer rewarded for impressive performances for the Under-18s on Saturday with places on the bench.
The Blues went into the game in a rich vein of form following three successive victories, and within two minutes, and from the first attack of any note, we were in front.
As Everton lost possession deep inside our half we broke at pace; the ball was worked inside to Brown who in turn found Swift. The Chelsea midfielder, sensing the run of the overlapping Kiwomya, fed his team-mate, and though Mason Springthorpe in the home side’s goal did well to save the initial strike, the rebound fell invitingly for Loftus-Cheek who fired into the roof of the net from close range.
Everton forced two corners in quick succession as they looked to hit back instantly, but we defended them well and gradually began to see more and more of the ball.
Thirteen minutes after breaking the deadlock we extended our lead, and it was a goal fit to grace the biggest stage. Swift, who had played a pivotal role in the opener, picked the ball up 30 yards from goal and, rather than looking to play the killer pass, he dispatched a wonderful swerving strike past Springthorpe to make it 2-0.
It was a start which would have delighted Drummy, and the pace and inventiveness of Kiwomya and Brown in particular was giving the home side plenty of cause for concern.
At the other end, meanwhile, it required a well-timed tackle by Ake to thwart Matthew Kennedy as the wide-man looked to get in behind the Blues’ defence.
Kennedy then produced a decent cross from wide on the right which Chris Long was unable to connect with as Alan Stubbs’s side attempted to find a route back into the game.
It was Chelsea, however, who continued to look the more threatening, particularly on the counter attack, with Feruz fizzing one narrowly wide following some nice build-up play between Loftus-Cheek and Brown.
Next to go close was Kiwomya, who displayed fantastic technique and balance to bring the ball out of the air and evade two challenges inside the penalty area, only to be denied by the feet of Springthorpe from point-blank range.
The hosts were struggling to contain the movement and interchanging of our midfielders, and they breathed another collective sigh of relief when Swift, buoyed by his goal, again tried his luck from distance, but on this occasion saw it clip the top of the bar.
The second half picked up where the first had ended, with Chelsea on the front foot and looking to put the game out of Everton’s reach; Kiwomya and Swift did well to offer up an opportunity for Brown, but his curling effort dropped just the wrong side of the post.
Against the run of play, however, the home side were back in the game five minutes after the restart. As an Everton free-kick was swung into the box, Matthew Pennington ghosted away from his marker, and although Jamal Blackman did well to save the defender’s header, the rebound landed at the feet of Hallam Hope who made no mistake.
The goal offered the home side a reprieve, and while it was harsh on us, we responded well and continued to take the game to Everton, and could have been awarded a penalty when Ake appeared to be brought down inside the penalty area. The referee, though, who was only a few metres away from the incident, gave the home side the benefit of the doubt.
With 23 minutes left to play, however, Everton were back on level terms when Hope pounced on a poor Blackman clearance and fired into an empty net from 25 yards. The Chelsea goalkeeper did his best to get back and make the save but, though he managed to get a hand on the ball, he was unable to prevent it from rolling into the back of the net.
Quite how the scores were all-square was anybody’s guess, and soon after Blackman produced a brilliant stop to prevent Hope from scoring his hat-trick and turning the game completely on its head, saving low down to his right after the striker had got beyond Ake and Andreas Christensen.
Kasey Palmer replaced Loftus-Cheek as Drummy made his first change of the night, and the substitute, making his first appearance at this level, almost made an immediate impact, but could only drag his shot wide after being teed up by Kiwomya.
Solanke, who netted a brace for the Under-18s in their 5-2 win at Blackburn on Saturday, was then brought on at the expense of Brown as we pressed for a winner, but we were caught out on the break and with Courteny Duffus racing through on goal, Blackman brought the substitute down inside the box, leaving the referee with no option but to point to the spot.
It was John Lundstram who stepped forward to take the resulting kick, and though Blackman made the save, Long forced the rebound home to give Everton the lead.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Jamal Blackman; Isak Ssewankambo, Andreas Christensen, Nathan Ake (c), Adam Nditi (Alex Davey 85); John Swift, Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Kasey Palmer 73), Billy Clifford; Alex Kiwomya, Islam Feruz, Isaiah Brown (Dominic Solanke 77).
Unused substitutes: Mitchell Beeney, Dion Conroy.
Everton (4-3-3): Mason Springthorpe; Matthew Pennington, John Lundstram, Tyias Browning (c), Ibou Touray: Jonjoe Kenny, Conor Grant, Ryan Ledson (Courtney Duffus 78); Matthew Kennedy, Chris Long, Hallam Hope.
Unused substitutes: Russell Griffiths, Gethin Jones, Ben McLaughlin, George Green.