A young Chelsea Under-21 side conceded twice in the second half at the Riverside Stadium on Tuesday evening.
The home side, familiar opponents in this league competition this season with this the fourth meeting, enjoyed the better of the game and limited Chelsea’s chances, the closest efforts coming just before the half-time and full-time whistles.
With the NextGen and FA Youth Cup campaigns now at the semi-final stage and providing plenty of match action for the squad, this was an opportunity for several first-year scholars to experience playing in a first-team stadium against good opposition.
International call-ups had reduced the numbers available to Dermot Drummy and with many of those who had played in the last Under-21 outing just over a week ago also involved in Sunday’s Under-19 win over Juventus, he selected a much-changed side, although Jeremie Boga and Adam Nditi did start tonight and two days ago as well, and John Swift (pictured) had come on during the NextGen win.
Swift was in central midfield for this league game alongside Isak Sswankambo, both handed their first U21 starts, as were Fankaty Dabo, in at right-back for Todd Kane who has returned on loan to Blackburn, and Ambrose Gnahore on the left wing. It was his first appearance.
The central defensive partnership was unchanged from the home defeat by Everton last Monday with Dion Conroy alongside Daniel Pappoe. Milan Lalkovic captained the side from the front.
There was a crisp early shot from Middlesbrough midfielder Luke Williams which hit the sidenetting, and a header from Ryan Brobbel that had to be defended at the far post before Mustapha Carayol shot well off-target, but it wasn’t until 15 minutes in that either side went close to scoring. Then Middlesbrough went very close indeed.
A ball through the centre allowed Merouane Zemamma, one of the most experienced players in the Boro side, to turn away behind Pappoe. He had the pace to say ahead but when he shot high past Mitchell Beeney the ball hit the inside of one post, then the inside of the other and bounced out to safety.
Having ridden our luck, Chelsea improved and Swift and Boga had shots blocked by the same player – Luke Williams. The home team, who had their defensive midfielder Marcus Rhodden policing Boga closely, were defending well.
Mitchell Beeney showed safe hands at the other end to hold on to a shot from Mustapha Carayol after a quickly taken Boro free-kick, and Ryan Brobbel should have done better than head at the Chelsea keeper when a cross found him unmarked two minutes before the half-time whistle.
In stoppage time came Chelsea’s best shot of the half after centre-back Adam Jackson had gifted the ball to Swift. The strike was good but Ben Wilson dived and pushed it wide.
The pace of Boro’s left winger Carayol had looked capable of causing problems and it did just that two minutes after the restart when he burst forward and sent over a cross. Conroy’s clearing header lacked distance and Brobbel fired the home side into the lead via a deflection.
Drummy made two changes before the hour was up. First Sam Bangura came on at right-back with Dabo pushed further forward and then first-year scholar Jesse Starkey was introduced on the left of the Chelsea midfield for his Under-21 debut.
Beeney remained the busier keeper though, pushing a header from Burgess round the post and making sure a tight-angle shot from Main didn’t find its way in.
Chelsea did find space to attack out wide on occasions but the delivery into the area lacked accuracy.
Boro doubled the lead with 76 minutes played, Jackson wrong-footing Nditi and sending in the ball in low. The defence couldn’t clear properly and Carayol swept his shot in from eight yards out.
Chelsea looked to respond quickly with Boga slipping a well-weighted pass to Starkey inside the area, but the sub’s attempt to find a colleague in the centre was cut out.
The final two shots of the game for the home team were both for substitute Wilson Kneeshaw but Beeney was able to watch the first go wide and Sswankambo was in the right place to block the second.
With two minutes on the clock Chelsea came our closest to scoring. Centre-forward Lalkovic had been involved infrequently but after he made himself busy on the left of the area, the ball broke to Starkey who from an angle beat the keeper but saw his worthy effort hit the crossbar.
‘It was a young side and some of the boys are on the periphery of the youth team but needed to play because of players going away on internationals,’ said Drummy.
‘But I can’t fault the spirit and you have to give credit to Middlesbrough, they play good football, they are difficult to mark and they get the ball down and play.
‘So it was not easy and we had luck when they hit both posts, but we showed commitment and tried to play to the end, and hit the bar, so I am not displeased.’
Chelsea: Mitchell Beeney; Fankaty Dabo, Daniel Pappoe, Dion Conroy, Adam Nditi; Isak Sswankambo, John Swift; Lamisha Musonda (Sam Bangura 50), Jeremie Boga, Ambrose Gnahore (Jesse Starkey 56); Milan Lalkovic (c).
Unused subs: Ben Killip, Jon Muleba.
Middlesbrough: Ben Wilson; Andre Bennett, Adam Jackson, Christian Burgess (c), Paul Weldon;Marcus Rhoden; Ryan Brobbel, Luke Williams (Cameron Park 83), Merouane Zemamma, Mustapha Carayol (Lewis Sirrell 86); Curtis Main (Wilson Kneeshaw 86).