Dermot Drummy’s Under-21s earned themselves a place in the last eight of the inaugural Under-21 Premier League Cup with a win in difficult conditions at Aldershot. An own goal cancelled out Isaiah Brown’s early opener, before captain Nathan Ake put the hosts back in front midway through the first half with what proved to be the winning goal.
Dermot Drummy made four changes from the side that defeated Cardiff City 4-0 in the previous round, with Mitchell Beeney returning in goal in place of Jamal Blackman and Andreas Christensen taking Danny Pappoe’s place in central defence.
Adam Nditi and Alex Davey retained their places at left-back and centre-back respectively, while Fankaty Dabo replaced Isak Ssewankambo on the right side to make up the back four.
Isaiah Brown led the line up front, supported by Jeremie Boga and John Swift from the flanks, while Lewis Baker kept his place in midfield after his first team debut from the bench at Derby County in the FA Cup third round. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and captain Nathan Ake made up the midfield trio.
Five of the West Ham starting team from November’s league meeting featured in the first team’s 5-0 FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest on Sunday so there were 10 changes from the side that began that 3-3 draw.
With the rain subsiding just in time for kick-off at Aldershot the early proceedings were even and Beeney had an early scare as a short back-pass put him under pressure from the eager forward closing down. Yet the first chance of the game came down the other end after Baker had been felled as his tricky footwork evaded defenders.
The midfielder stepped up himself and bent in an excellent effort from just over 20 yards that the visiting goalkeeper Sam Howes impressively tipped on to the post. That was an early warning sign from the young Blues, though West Ham threatened themselves moments later as Beeney denied captain Kieran Bywater’s well-hit strike at the near post.
The end-to-end early exchanges quickly saw an opening goal arrive after six minutes and it was the hosts taking a lead. Baker, involved in much of the attacking play early on operating from a more advanced No.10 midfield role, supplied the pass for Brown, and the striker fired emphatically hard and low beyond Howes for his eighth goal of the season.
The young Hammers responded positively, continuing to cause problems as they pushed forward, and were quickly rewarded with an equaliser inside a quarter of an hour. Jerry Amoo’s enterprising burst from right-back created the danger and his low centre was spilled into his own net by Beeney via a deflection from Nditi.
Both sides were enjoying possession and opportunities in an open encounter and Amoo threatened once again with a powerful run down the right, bursting away from the defending Boga, although his delivery was eventually overhit beyond the supporting attackers.
Davey finished confidently past Howes as the aftermath of a Chelsea corner was poorly cleared, though the lineman’s flag was raised for a narrow offside call, before the game’s third goal arrived midway through the half.
Skipper Ake found space running from deep midfield and was found with an excellent ball through from Loftus-Cheek, before providing an accomplished finish down low and across the goalkeeper into the far bottom corner to net his second goal of the campaign. His first, incidentally, came back in November when these two sides met in the league and the Dutchman grabbed a last-minute equaliser.
As the half wore on Chelsea’s control of the game grew stronger, as did the influence of the lively front four of Brown, Baker, Swift and Boga. Baker’s corner from the left got caught by the swirling wind and almost caught out goalkeeper Howes, before Nditi’s super cross from the left narrowly evaded the onrushing Swift at the far post.
A brilliant exchange between Baker and Boga fashioned another opening for the hosts, though the Frenchman was denied by Howes, and the West Ham stopper was called into action once again moments later as he saved Boga’s header after Swift had beaten his man and delivered from the right.
Jordan Brown was denied by a succession of close tackles from Davey after Nathan Mavila had provided from the left, before the last action of the half saw Chelsea go close to extending the lead. Ake swept a brilliant cross-field pass out to the attacking Nditi on the left and the defender’s excellent first touch allowed him to get into space, though goalscorer Brown couldn’t add to his tally as his bending effort flew over the bar.
The visitors began the second period eager to get on the front foot as they searched for an equaliser in the tie, though it was Brown for the hosts who found himself presented with the first chance of the half as he raced in behind. The striker attempted to flick the ball over the covering defender but Amos Nasha defended cleverly and marshalled the danger away.
With a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs there was plenty to play for and the visitors came close to levelling terms shortly after the restart. Jordan Brown forced the save from Beeney, though the shot was straight at the goalkeeper and the save was ultimately a routine one.
That warning sign set the tone for the young Blues to respond strongly as they sought to grab a third goal and finish off the game. Manny Onariase cleared well for West Ham as a dangerous delivery from the right from Dabo landed invitingly inside the six-yard box, before Brown was twice thwarted as he looked to get his second goal of the evening.
Howes in the Hammers’ goal was certainly proving to be the busiest man on the field and he was needed again to save from Baker’s flick after Swift had beaten Reece Burke and delivered from the right.
The bright Swift continued to pose problems for the visitors, either using his skill and pace to beat his man on the outside or coming infield to threaten. It was through the latter that the Under-21s’ top goalscorer almost got his 11th goal of the season, coming inside off the right touchline and beating a couple of defenders before firing an arrowing effort towards goal that flew just inches wide.
The windy conditions and intermittent driving rain continued to make playing conditions difficult and goalmouth action was rare as the half wore on. Nditi dragged a shot wide past the far post after finding space down the left, though the game continued to be cagey and chances were limited.
Charly Musonda and Ola Aina were introduced by Drummy to provide an energising boost to proceedings and the young Belgian proved lively, creating openings for himself with some clever footwork and skill, though a combination of a bumpy pitch and some brave blocks from defenders limited his impact somewhat.
Swift tested Howes late on while Brown might have done better when advanced in the box but chose to look for a pass rather than shoot as Chelsea held on to ensure their progress in the competition.
Next up for Drummy’s Under-21s is a league game against Reading. This game is moved from Aldershot and will now be played at Cobham, with kick-off at 2pm. The match will be played behind closed doors and we regret supporters will not be admitted.
Dermot Drummy was pleased the game went ahead despite heavy rain in the days preceding it and high wind on the night.
‘Well done to [Chelsea head groundsman] Jason Griffin and the Aldershot staff for getting this game on,’ he said.
‘We needed the match because we did give the lads, especially the foreign players a good break at Christmas and no matter what training you do, it is nothing like going through a game.
‘It was a cup tie and we won it so we are pleased with that but compliments to West Ham, they had a good game plan and their goalkeeper made some outstanding saves. If you look on the balance of chances we were worthy winners and I’ve said to the boys it is a nice trait to keep winning.
‘West Ham knew we attack centrally and we didn’t have real width with Alex Kiwomya being ill, but it was a great move for Nathan’s goal, we moved the ball quickly which we didn’t always do tonight but it is the way I like to play.
‘Isaiah finished well for his goal and Lew Baker has come off the back of making his first team debut, which is wonderful, to perform well tonight.’
Chelsea: Mitchell Beeney; Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen, Adam Nditi; Nathan Ake (c), Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Charly Musonda 72); John Swift, Jeremie Boga, Isaiah Brown.
Unused subs: Bradley Collins, Dion Conroy, Ola Aina
West Ham: Sam Howes, Jerry Amoo (Matthew Carter 77), Lewis Page, Amos Nasha, Reece Burke, Manny Onariase, Moses Makasi, Josh Cullen, Jordan Brown, Kieran Bywater (c), Nathan Mavila (Marcio Martins 77)
Unused subs: Gines Guzman Rosique, Oscar Borg, Josh Pask