UNDER 21S REPORT: CHELSEA 1 MIDDLESBROUGH 3
It was a second successive home defeat and a third game without a win for our Under-21s as we were beaten 3-1 by Middlesbrough at Griffin Park.
The visitors took the lead at the end of a first half which was devoid of too many clear-cut opportunities at either end, Lewis Sirrell firing them in front from the edge of the penalty area.
We came out for the second spell determined to restore parity, and were rewarded when Patrick Bamford reacted quickest to fire home after Billy Clifford's shot took a deflection and ran into his path.
However, with the Blues beginning to take over, Middlesbrough went in front against the run of play moments later through Charlie Wyke, and when Matthew Waters netted a third for the visitors with only four minutes left to play, we were left with too much to do.
In truth, the scoreline probably wasn't a true reflection of how the game developed, but the away side were rewarded for a ruthless streak in front of goal, leaving our attention turning towards a local derby away at Fulham next Friday.
Chelsea manager Dermot Drummy made only one change to the side which drew 2-2 at Crystal Palace on Monday night, with Jeremie Boga coming into the midfield for Ruben Loftus-Cheek who dropped down to the bench. Patrick Bamford once again lead the line, flanked by Islam Feruz on the right and Lewis Baker on the left.
The Blues were quick out of the blocks and should have been ahead within the opening 30 seconds after a decent move down the right-hand side.
The ball was worked out to Todd Kane who showed a lovely piece of skill to evade his marker, but as the skipper fired his cross into a crowded penalty area and it fell at the feet of Boga, the midfielder, leaning back, fired over the bar.
We were enjoying plenty of the ball in the opening quarter of the game without looking threatening, and it was the visitors who came closest to breaking the deadlock after a Nathan Ake clearance ran straight into the path of Ryan Brobbel, who crashed an absolute thunderbolt against the bar with Jamal Blackman rooted to the spot.
Middlesbrough were growing in stature as the game progressed and playing some nice stuff, but more often than not they were let down by the final ball from out wide, while at the back they looked relatively comfortable as the likes of Billy Clifford and Boga struggled to find the killer pass.
It was Middlesbrough, again, who went close to seizing the initiative, but midfielder Jake Fowler's long-range strike flew inches wide of Blackman's left-hand post.
A minute later, for the first time in the match, Bamford managed to get beyond the last line of defence, latching on to a clever Clifford pass only to be scythed down on the edge of the box by Christian Burgess.
It was a free-kick in a dangerous position, but with Bamford and Clifford standing over the ball deliberating, the striker eventually sent his effort harmlessly over the bar.
Boga had a second sight of goal shortly after, and the visitors had Ripley to thank for keeping the scores level after the goalkeeper saved a powerful drive low down.
George Saville then carved out a chance for himself through sheer endeavour, but as the midfielder rolled his effort beyond the advancing Ripley, Paul Weldon somehow managed to clear off the line to deny the midfielder what would have been his third goal in two games.
As the half wore on, it was the hosts looking more likely to steal an advantage, but with Middlesbrough seemingly content to defend deep and in large numbers, finding a breakthrough was proving far more difficult than we would have hoped.
Two minutes before half-time, however, what had been a disappointing first-half took a turn for the worse when the away side went in front, and the manner in which the goal was conceded will certainly have worried Drummy.
Sirrell collected the ball wide on the left-hand side, and as the Chelsea defence stood off, allowing him to work himself into a menacing position, the winger drove his strike from the edge of the box into the far corner past Blackman.
It was far too easy, and as the referee signalled for the break, there was plenty for the Blues, and Drummy, to ponder.
We emerged for the second spell early, clearly intent on finding a way back into the game. There was one change to personnel at half-time, with Lamisha Musonda replacing Islam Feruz, who had been a peripheral figure during the opening 45 minutes.
Blackman, though, was called into action barely a minute after the restart, saving well from a stinging Sirrell effort as Middlesbrough looked to extend their lead.
Our first sight of goal soon followed, Alex Davey arriving at the far post to meet a Baker corner, but the defender who, if anything, had too much time, failed to find a proper connection.
Eleven minutes into the second half the breakthrough finally came, Middlesbrough were struggling to clear their lines and, as a Clifford strike took a deflection and rolled into the path of Bamford, the striker calmly slotted into the bottom corner to level things up.
Clearly buoyed by his equaliser, Bamford was beginning to make a nuisance of himself, and he went close twice in quick succession, firstly with an effort which was well saved by Ripley, and soon after with an ambitious chip from distance.
The Blues were in the ascendancy and looking the more likely to push on and take control, but against the run of play all our hard work was undone when Middlesbrough restored their lead.
The ball was played into the penalty area from wide on the right, and it was the striker Wyke who reacted quickest, taking it beyond Davey with his first touch before slotting his strike past Blackman into an empty net.
It was a cruel blow on the young Chelsea players who had shown great determination to get back into the game, but once again we had it all to do.
Drummy made his second substitution of the evening shortly after, Davey making way for the returning Daniel Pappoe.
We were once again seeing plenty of the ball following Middlesbrough's second goal without ever looking like scoring, but any hopes we harboured of salvaging a point were extinguished with four minutes remaining when Waters burst into the box unchallenged and fired beyond Blackman.
Drummy was understandably disappointed after the game, but felt the scoreline was harsh on his side.
'It's not a fair reflection in terms of chances, but you have to give them credit, that's the way they play and they did it well,' he said.
'For all our possession we couldn't unlock any doors, but they had four chances and scored three goals.
'We work as a team and you have to stick together, we're playing some younger players, and as long as they're working hard and gaining experience from it then I'm sure we'll be okay.'
Chelsea (4-3-3): Jamal Blackman; Todd Kane (c), Nathan Ake, Alex Davey (Daniel Pappoe 68), Aziz Deen-Conteh; Billy Clifford (Adam Nditi 89), George Saville, Jeremie Boga; Islam Feruz (Lamisha Musonda h/t), Patrick Bamford, Lewis Baker.
Unused substitutes: Ben Killip, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Connor Ripley; Andre Bennett, Kyle Oliver, Christian Burgess, Paul Weldon; Matthew Dolan (c), Jake Fowler; Ryan Brobbel,Matthew Waters, Lewis Sirrell; Charlie Wyke.
Unused substitutes: James Montgomery, Jarrett Rivers, Wilson Kneeshaw, Curtis Edwards, Ejiro Okosieme.