Dermot Drummy’s Under-21s moved into third place in the league table with victory on a mild spring afternoon in Aldershot. A second half goal from substitute Isak Ssewankambo settled the game and gave the young Blues their third consecutive league win.
There were three changes for the Blues from the side that beat Fulham in their last outing at the start of February. Nathan Ake was missing as he joined Jose Mourinho’s first team squad for their game against Tottenham later in the day, so Adam Nditi came into defence alongside Andreas Christensen, Alex Davey and Fankaty Dabo.
Lewis Baker and John Swift, goalscorers in that 2-1 win over Fulham at Motspur Park, were joined in midfield by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Islam Feruz led the line up front supported by Reece Mitchell and Izzy Brown from the flanks. Mitchell Beeney continued in goal.
Both sides eased their way into the game in the opening exchanges, with Jonathan Burn heading Callum Cooke’s free kick from the left over and Swift firing high from outside the box in the first 10 minutes. Christensen had to be alert to cover at the front post and clear the danger after good work down the left from Mark Kitching and Ryan Brobbel.
Feruz then tested Jayson Leutwiler in the Middlesbrough goal, chasing down a seemingly lost cause and forcing a low save from the goalkeeper, before the visitors’ number one saw his woodwork rattling. Loftus-Cheek was upended as he drove forward and Baker stepped up 30 yards out, bending an excellent effort back off the crossbar.
Brobbel hit a speculative looping half-volley that narrowly dipped over Beeney’s bar, while Cooke saw a shot really well saved by Beeney as Middlesbrough attacked with a numerical advantage for the first time in the game.
Brobbel was involved again moments later, escaping in behind as a centre from the left was delivered into the box, though the winger couldn’t quite connect to divert the ball towards goal. Baker then brought out a very good save from Leutwiler with a rasping drive after good work down the right by Mitchell and Feruz.
The visiting goalkeeper saved from Feruz in the final few minutes as neither side could find a breakthrough before the interval.
The visitors started the second period strongly and Beeney had to be at his best to keep the scores level in the opening five minutes. First he denied Cooke after substitute Scott McCartny had supplied from the right, before tipping a fierce effort from the same player onto the woodwork.
In response, Mitchell picked up a loose ball on the edge of the box and saw a drive towards the far post pushed around the post by Leutwiler, before Ssewankambo prodded a shot narrowly over after a corner from the left.
The game was opening up and it wasn’t long before the deadlock was broken. Ssewankambo and Swift combined as they moved into the box and the substitute was neatly teed up by Swift, before finishing confidently beyond the onrushing Leutwiler for his first goal of the season.
Bradley Fewster bent a shot wide as the visitors looked for an equaliser, while Swift shot high and then had a deflected effort gathered comfortably by the goalkeeper. Substitute Ola Aina almost had an immediate impact as his right-footed dipping strike was shovelled away by the goalkeeper, before Brobbel’s deflected shot flew inches beyond the upright.
The visitors did manage to get the ball in the back of the net as Fewster finished smartly after a ball through from Cooke, though the linesman’s flag ruled the striker offside. Swift then stung the palms of Leutwiler and Baker’s free kick was pushed away as Drummy’s side looked for a decisive second goal.
The young Blues had to cleverly manage the game in the final minutes and Baker had a chance to double their tally but his effort was well blocked by Burn. That was the game’s final action as Chelsea secured all three points and moved into third place in the league table.
Next up for Drummy’s side is an Under-19s UEFA Youth League quarter-final against Schalke at Cobham next Sunday, 16 March.
Manager Drummy paid tribute to the opposition from the North East and admitted they provided one of this season’s toughest tests for his side. Speaking to the official Chelsea website after the game, he said: ‘After international week where we had seven or eight players away I thought we really had to dig deep and play a slightly different game than normal at times because of Middlesbrough’s quality.
‘They pressed us, used their wingers really well and tried to play and I think that’s probably the toughest game we’ve had all season. Mitchell Beeney made some big saves, Andreas Christensen and Alex Davey performed admirably at the back and it was a great goal from Isak Ssewankambo.’
Juggling the demands of league campaigns at Under-21 and Under-18 level, as well as the UEFA Youth League and FA Youth Cup, has been a challenge for the Academy in recent weeks but Drummy admitted the most important thing was getting three points in this game.
‘We knew Izzy Brown could only play about an hour because of a recent injury and we had Tuesday’s game [against Newcastle in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final] in the back of our mind but first and foremost we had to get three points today.
‘We’re now up to third with a couple of games in hand and we’re having a fantastic season. I watched the Under-18s play yesterday and, despite losing 3-0, they were brilliant against Fulham with 10 schoolboys involved. I thought that was a credit to the work the younger coaches, as well as Adi [Viveash] and Joe [Edwards], are doing in the Academy.’
Chelsea (4-3-3): Mitchell Beeney; Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen, Adam Nditi; Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Isak Ssewankambo h/t), John Swift, Lewis Baker (c); Reece Mitchell, Izzy Brown (Ola Aina 70), Islam Feruz
Unused subs: Bradley Collins, Isak Ssewankambo, Dion Conroy, Tika Musonda
Middlesbrough: Jayson Leutwiler, Jonathan Helm, Jonathan Burn, Kieran Weleoji, Birger Meling, Robbie Tinkler, Jordan Jones (Scott McCartny h/t), Callum Cooke, Bradley Fewster, Mark Kitching, Ryan Brobbel (c)
Unused subs: Lewis Sirrel, Tom Dawson, Lewis Maloney, Jonathan Coleby
By Sam Poplett
Pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom and Dan Davies.