Chelsea Under-21s went down to a narrow defeat at Aldershot as Benik Afobe’s goal in extra time settled a tight Premier League Under-21 Cup derby and sent Terry Burton’s side into the semi-finals.
Neither side could break the deadlock over 90 minutes as a tight contest featured few chances, however the Arsenal striker pounced 16 seconds into the second period of extra time to give his side victory.
Dermot Drummy named an unchanged starting 11 from the side that came from behind to defeat Wolves in the Under-21 league last week. Islam Feruz, who scored both goals that evening in Telford, led the line up front supported by Alex Kiwomya and Izzy Brown from the flanks, while Lewis Baker continued in midfield alongside John Swift and Jeremie Boga.
Captain Nathan Ake kept his place at left back, after recently moving to train on a more regular day-to-day basis with Jose Mourinho’s first team, while Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and Mitchell Beeney made up the remainder of the back five.
Seven of the starters in Arsenal’s round of last-16 win over Fulham kept their places, including captain Issac Hayden, Ryo Miyaichi, Gedion Zelalem and striker Benik Afobe. In total, 12 of the players that featured in last season’s Under-19 NextGen Series semi-final between the two sides were involved in this Under-21 Cup tie.
The start to the game was disrupted inside the opening couple of minutes by an injury to Baker, who went down under a heavy challenge from the visiting skipper Hayden, though after a period of treatment on the field, the midfielder was able to continue and was soon involved in the game’s first chance.
He pounced upon a loose ball out of defence from Semi Ajayi and advanced towards goal, testing Matthew Macey from 25 yards and forcing a good save from the goalkeeper, who tipped the driven ball around the post and behind for a corner.
Arsenal threatened down the other end as Danny Boateng headed a delivery from a left-sided corner comfortably wide, before Boga tested Macey with a decent well-struck shot that proved comfortable down low and central for the goalkeeper.
Confusion between Davey and Beeney in the Chelsea box almost gifted the young Gunners an opener, however, as Afobe capitalised on uncertainty in the area to steal in behind and test the goalkeeper from close range. Beeney, though, stood tall and denied the striker with a smart stop.
As the half moved towards its midway point, both sides enjoyed alternating spells of ball retention in midfield areas without breaking through each other’s rearguard, though Miyaichi did sting the palms of Beeney from a tight angle as his effort arrowed towards the top corner at the near post.
The best chance of the half fell to an unlikely figure in Davey, as the young Blues threatened to break the deadlock from a set-piece. Baker’s inswinging delivery from the left found the centre-back unmarked and in space, though his volleyed effort from close range ended up flying high over the bar.
Boga curled an effort from outside the box narrowly high and wide while down the other end, a mistimed header from Ake gave the visitors a big chance as they advanced towards Beeney’s goal with four attackers against three defenders. Dabo defended the threat expertly though, timing a sliding challenge perfectly to thwart the danger.
Kiwomya had a deflected effort tipped over the bar by the back-pedalling Macey and Swift fired a chance into the side netting as both defences held firm to keep the scores level at the break.
The hosts started the second period with a change as manager Drummy replaced Dabo with Ola Aina in a like-for-like swap at right-back, and it was progress down that right flank that provided the spark for the half’s first chance.
Kiwomya exploited some sloppy passing out of defence from Arsenal and accelerated away down the wing before providing a perfect centre for Feruz, though the striker’s side-footed effort flew narrowly over Macey’s crossbar.
Neither side could claim to be succeeding in the midfield battle and the first quarter of an hour of the second half followed a similar pattern to the first half’s proceedings, with only a few half-chances of note. Kris Olsson had a glimpse at goal from 15 yards out but skewed his shot over as he connected off-balance, while Brown forced a neat save at the near post from Macey after finding some space down the left channel.
A period of Chelsea pressure after the hour mark almost paid dividends as Swift’s low centre from the right towards the back post found Brown, though Macey once again denied the wideman’s effort from the tight angle, this time with his feet.
Kiwomya was proving to be the hosts’ biggest threat down the right flank and the 17-year-old fashioned a good chance for himself after beating a couple of defenders with a mazy run through the heart of the Gunners’ defence. His shot from the edge of the box was low and wrong-footed Macey, though the goalkeeper recovered well to get down and gather.
As the tie edged towards extra time it was Drummy’s young Blues edging the contest and Brown was inches away from getting on the end of an excellent long diagonal ball forward from Davey, though was just unable to take the dropping ball under his control.
Hayden fired over while Davey had a dipping shot from range comfortably gathered in the end by Macey as the tight Cup derby headed towards extra time. There was time remaining, however, for glaring chances at either end as both sides looked to book a place in the semi-finals.
In the last minute of normal time Jon Harper found space in a great position at the far post, with the goal at his mercy, though the substitute could only drag his effort tamely wide, to the gasps of Chelsea relief. Feruz then seized on a mistake at the back after a high ball forward by Davey and skipped past the recovering defender and the goalkeeper before stumbling and watching the ball squirm agonisingly away from him and just the wrong side of the post.
Extra time – first period
The additional 30 minutes began evenly as both sides sought to conserve energy and maximise space and attacking opportunities once they presented themselves. Boga and Afobe fired efforts wide at either end in the opening few minutes before substitute Adam Nditi, introduced in place of Brown 10 minutes after the restart, almost scored with his first touch.
A low centre from the right found him at the back post and his driven effort was struck cleanly, though Macey was equal to it with an impressive save down low and quick. The rebound was turned into the net but the referee adjudged that the goalkeeper had been fouled having claimed two hands on the loose ball.
Chelsea continued to push forward and Baker came closest to finding the breakthrough in the last few minutes of the first period. His initial free kick from the left, after Nditi was felled by Boateng, was defended well but the header clear came back to the midfielder’s feet and his flighted effort high towards the back post ricocheted off the crossbar and to safety.
Feruz had a chance deflected behind while Ake was forced into an excellent block from Thomas Eisfeld as the forward was denied from eight yards.
Extra time – second period
The game’s elusive opening goal did arrive in the second period of extra time and it took just 16 seconds for the deadlock to finally be broken. A ball over the top from Eisfeld on the right wing sent Afobe in the clear and the striker took full advantage, finishing smartly over the top of the onrushing Beeney.
That gave the Blues just under 15 minutes to fight back in the tie and keep their place in the competition. In response, Kiwomya’s deep cross from the right was met by a sliding Nditi, though the substitute’s effort was pushed narrowly wide.
A great chance to equalise came as a free kick from the left after a foul by Olsson was floated in wickedly by Baker and met in the air by Christensen, though the Danish defender’s touch wasn’t enough to beat the stranded Macey and flew just past the post.
A quick break led by Loftus-Cheek then presented the Blues with another sight at goal, after the substitute midfielder had advanced through midfield and beaten a couple of defenders, though after sliding the ball onto Feruz the striker’s heavy touch let him down and the ball ran through to the goalkeeper.
However Arsenal frustrated the hosts by keeping the ball intelligently in the remaining minutes and defended resolutely, securing their place in the last four of the competition with a narrow win.
Next up for Drummy’s Under-21s is a league game against West Bromwich Albion this Friday, 31 January. The game’s venue, originally scheduled to be Aldershot’s Electrical Servives Stadium, has been changed to the Cobham training ground. Regrettably supporters will not be admitted, though the game is being screened live on Chelsea TV.
Dermot Drummy was disappointed in exiting the inaugural competition at the quarter-final stage and felt his side might have deserved better on the night.
Speaking to the official Chelsea website after the defeat, he said: ‘Our work rate and effort was great but perhaps we overplayed it at times on a bad pitch. We’ve maybe got to learn about that but the boys are learning their game all the time.
‘I’m proud of the squad and the way they play but it’s just disappointing sometimes when I feel we deserve a bit more but we don’t get it on the night.’
Despite being in charge of the game for long periods his side were unable to score, the first time they’ve been unable to hit the back of the net all season, and Drummy felt that inability to turn control of the game into a goal was the difference.
‘Being on top of the game is one thing but converting a goal is another. Arsenal pressed us early and had a real threat in Benik Afobe, who’s a more experienced campaigner. He took his goal well but we still got caught on one long ball, which is disappointing.
‘There were a few tackles that went in that surprised me. I don’t mind good tackles but when a guy hauls someone back and doesn’t get a card you do wonder. There was a little bit of inconsistency but there’s not much we can do about that. We just have to concentrate on the things we can change.’
Chelsea Mitchell Beeney; Fankaty Dabo (Ola Aina h/t), Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen, Nathan Ake (c); John Swift (Ruben Loftus-Cheek 71), Lewis Baker, Jeremie Boga; Alex Kiwomya, Izzy Brown (Adam Nditi 95), Islam Feruz
Unused subs Jordan Beeney, Dion Conroy
Bookings Swift, Baker
Arsenal Matthew Macey; Danny Boateng, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Isaac Hayden (c), Semi Ajayi, Julio Pleguezuelo, Gedion Zelalem, Kris Olsson, Ryo Miyaichi (Jon Harper 74), Thomas Eisfeld, Benik Afobe
Unused subs Deyan Iliev, Alex Iwobi, Zach Fagan, Glen Kamara
Scorer Afobe 106
By Sam Poplett