The Under-21s won their third successive game to end the regular league season top of the Under-21 Premier League table. Hector Bellerin gave the hosts a half-time lead at the Emirates before Lewis Baker’s equaliser midway through the second period and John Swift’s winner four minutes from time.
Dermot Drummy’s side will now progress to the end-of-season playoffs as top seeds.
Drummy made five changes from the side that started the weekend’s 4-2 win over West Brom. Marco van Ginkel, Tomas Kalas and Nathan Ake, all involved with the Under-21 group in recent matches, travelled to Madrid as part of the first team’s matchday squad for their Champions League semi-final against Atletico, so there was an opportunity for Isak Ssewankambo to return to right back and for Ola Aina to start in central defence.
Aina was partnered by Andreas Christensen, who was part of Adi Viveash’s side that won at the Emirates last week in the FA Youth Cup, while Adam Nditi continued on the left side of defence and Mitchell Beeney returned in goal. Lewis Baker captained the side from midfield alongside John Swift and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, while Izzy Brown led the line up front supported from out wide by Alex Kiwomya and Reece Mitchell.
Eight of Drummy’s starting 11 were involved in that Youth Cup second leg in north London the previous week, while only three of their counterparts could claim the same as Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Julio Pleguezuelo and Chuba Akpom started for Terry Burton’s side. Carl Jenkinson and Abou Diaby also started for the hosts.
Both sides eased their way into the action in the opening exchanges as Baker fired over after seven minutes following a headed knockdown from Brown, while the young Gunners’ first shot on goal came from Diaby as he tested Beeney from 25 yards after Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill’s delivery from the left was headed clear by Christensen.
A foul by Diaby midway through the half gave Baker an opportunity from the free kick, though the midfielder’s radar was unusually awry as he shot high over the bar. Meanwhile, the respective number 10s were displaying neat flicks and tricks in possession, as Arsenal’s Kristoffer Olsson floated across the field skipping beyond defenders and Swift caused problems for the men in red, though it was Mitchell’s drive that forced goalkeeper Matt Macey into a good diving save after half an hour.
Macey then gathered comfortably as Brown headed towards goal from Baker’s deep inswinging free kick before the game’s opening goal arrived after 32 minutes. Hector Bellerin escaped in behind the Chelsea defence and held off the challenge of Aina to finish confidently past Beeney and put the hosts ahead.
Chelsea responded with intent and Arsenal reacted by dropping deeper in numbers behind the ball. Ssewankambo’s low centre from the right was comfortably gathered by Macey before Bellerin managed to escape in behind the Blues’ back line once again.
On this occasion Christensen’s pace forced the Spanish youth international to look for a pass and the visitors got men back, though Aina was cautioned for a late challenge as support arrived. Jenkinson hit the resulting free-kick from 18 yards low but Beeney saw it all the way and saved comfortably.
Kasey Palmer was introduced at the interval as Loftus-Cheek was withdrawn, while Arsenal made two switches as both Diaby and Pleguezuelo were replaced. Swift hit an early free-kick straight into the wall after Brown was felled and then the midfielder dragged a low effort beyond the far post as Chelsea restarted on the front foot.
Right-back Ssewankambo had a couple of sights at goal inside the opening quarter of an hour of the second period. After winning an aerial challenge and driving towards goal centrally, the Swedish youth international fired narrowly wide, before an effort from a tighter angle was hit into the side netting.
The game was opening up as the Blues pushed forward searching for a leveller and the hosts hit back with pace and precision on the break. Kiwomya’s deflected shot bounced a couple of yards the wrong side of the post before Akpom headed narrowly wide after substitute Ainsley Maitland-Niles had delivered an inviting cross from the right, though the game’s second goal soon came midway through the half.
Islam Feruz, who replaced Mitchell a few moments before, advanced down the right channel and waited for movement in the centre, before supplying a neat delivery that Baker met and finished past Macey with an exquisite back-heel for his fifth goal in three league games and 17th in all competitions this campaign.
Akpom fired over Beeney’s bar before the visiting goalkeeper was forced to intervene as Arsenal worked themselves in behind once more. The lively Maitland-Niles was the man skipping clear and he beat the onrushing Beeney to the loose ball before being brought down. The forward’s heavy touch spared Beeney a red card and Jon Toral struck the free kick over as Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief.
Chelsea continued to search for a winning goal that would see them end the league campaign top of the table, though the young Gunners also remained a threat as captain Isaac Hayden’s deflected shot from the edge of the box spun over Beeney and rebounded back off the crossbar. However, as the final whistle loomed, the match did get its third and final goal, and it was the visitors celebrating.
Baker whipped in a dangerous free kick from the right and Swift found some space with his run to nod the ball on its way into the far corner beyond the helpless Macey. It was the midfield man’s third goal in three games and 15th of an impressive goalscoring season.
Nditi hit a venomous effort from 30 yards that Macey did well to tip onto the crossbar and the visitors held on to the three points that sent them above Liverpool and top of the league.
Drummy was thrilled at the end of a brilliant evening for his side and praised his side’s character to come from behind to win the game. Speaking to the official Chelsea website afterwards, he said: ‘We’re absolutely delighted, for ourselves and for the Academy and the culture that Neil Bath [the Academy manager] sets here.
‘We’ve finished first over a season and that’s a fantastic achievement for my team. It’s a credit to how the boys and all my staff have worked this season. We had a setback against Schalke in the UEFA Youth League but since then we’ve showed a fantastic attitude.
‘We showed a great mentality tonight to win the match. We didn’t have a good first half but Kasey Palmer came on at half-time and got us going forward and gave us more freedom, and then Islam Feruz comes off the bench and makes a goal too. We worked tirelessly against a good side on a big pitch and it was that work-rate and effort to get ourselves back in the game that was a big plus for me.
Drummy also paid tribute to the night’s two scorers, hailing their goalscoring achievements this term as well as their overall influence on matches.
‘They’re brilliant. I’m always on to them and that’s because I really believe in them. They’re game-changing players and they can become game-changing players at the top level as long as they keep doing that week-in, week-out.’
Chelsea: Mitchell Beeney; Isak Ssewankambo, Ola Aina, Andreas Christensen, Adam Nditi; Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Kasey Palmer h/t), Lewis Baker (c), John Swift; Alex Kiwomya (Charly Musonda 71), Reece Mitchell (Islam Feruz 56), Izzy Brown
Unused subs: Bradley Collins, Fankaty Dabo
Scorers: Baker 67, Swift 86
Bookings: Aina, Beeney
Arsenal: Matt Macey, Carl Jenkinson, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Abou Diaby (Zak Ansah h/t), Semi Ajayi, Julio Pleguezuelo (Ainsley Maitland-Niles h/t), Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden (c) (Gedion Zelalem 89), Chuba Akpom, Kristoffer Olsson, Jon Toral
Unused subs: Ryan Huddart, Tafari Moore
Scorers: Bellerin 32