UNDER-21 REPORT: MIDDLESBROUGH 2 CHELSEA 3
Our Under-21s extended their unbeaten run to five matches, coming out on top in a five-goal thriller at the Riverside against Middlesbrough, but we were made to work for it in the end having been cruising at half-time.
The Blues led 2-0 at the break courtesy of goals from Billy Clifford and Lewis Baker, and the points seemed all but secure when Alex Davey made it 3-0 soon after the break.
Middlesbrough, however, had other ideas, and they were given hope when Ryan Brobbel hit back almost from the restart, before Christian Burgess reduced the deficit further midway through the second half.
There were chances at both ends as the clock ticked down, but Dermot Drummy's side defended resolutely and held on to earn another win, however with Wolves U21s also winning elsewhere, Chelsea finish third in our group in the first stage of the league tournament, one place above tonight's opponents There is a chance that might be enough to make the elite group for the second stage of the competition after Christmas but it relies on a series of results in another group going the Blues' way.
Dermot Drummy made three changes to the side which beat Fulham 3-0 a week ago at Cobham. Andreas Christensen came in for Tika Musonda at right-back, while at left-back, Sam Bangura replaced Adam Nditi. Meanwhile, in attack, there was a start for Lucas Piazon, who came into the side at the expense of Adam Phillip.
The Blues were quick out of the blocks, and would have been in front within the opening five minutes but for an impressive save by Connor Ripley who turned a stinging Islam Feruz strike around the post.
There were early chances at both ends, however, as Cameron Park curled an effort inches past Jamal Blackman's post shortly after Piazon had gone close.
The Brazilian had started the game strongly, and while his work on the ball certainly caught the eye, equally impressive was the manner in which he closed down spaces and looked to win back possession.
Bangura was the first player to be cautioned following a poor tackle on Park and, in truth, the defender was fortunate to only see yellow.
A minute later, though, we took a well-deserved lead with a strike fit to grace any game.
The Blues were awarded a free-kick 25 yards from goal, and it was Clifford who took responsibility, striding forward and curling a delightful effort over the wall and beyond the despairing dive of Ripley.
Unbeaten in four matches, the confidence was clearly flooding through Drummy's side, and George Saville forced another good save out of Ripley after pouncing on a loose ball and evading two markers with some neat footwork.
The hosts, who had won 3-1 in the corresponding fixture back in September, were struggling to live with our quick movement and clever interchanges, and it came as no surprise when we doubled our lead seven minutes before the break.
Piazon, who had been a constant thorn in Middlesbrough's side, picked the ball up wide on the left, and set off on a dazzling run which left two defenders in his wake, before cutting inside and pulling the ball back to an unmarked Baker who made no mistake.
Chelsea started the second half in a similar manner to the way in which we'd finished the first, and we were 3-0 up within a couple of minutes of the restart as Davey prodded home from close-range after the home side had failed to clear a free-kick.
Having fought back ourselves from 3-0 down at Liverpool only a few weeks ago, we were quickly reminded that the three points were far from secure when Middlesbrough hit back instantly.
Brobbel tried his luck with a speculative effort from outside the penalty area, and though Blackman was able to get a hand to the ball, it spun away from him and nestled in the bottom corner, giving the hosts a glimmer of hope.
The goal appeared to galvanise Middlesbrough, and shortly after the hour mark they were well and truly back in the game when defender Burgess bundled the ball home from inside the six-yard box as we failed to deal with a corner.
The tide had certainly turned, and it was now the home side who were first to every loose ball and looking the more threatening in the final third.
Luke Williams, who has featured for their first team this season, almost equalised a minute later when he was put clean through on goal, but the young striker, under pressure from Rohan Ince, crashed his strike well wide.
With Middlesbrough pushing for a leveller, and the Blues looking to restore our two-goal advantage, the game was opening up, and while Clifford was unfortunate not to double his tally for the evening at one end, a well-hit Matthew Dolan volley gave Blackman cause for concern at the other.
Adam Phillip had earlier been introduced for Islam Feruz, and James Ashton was brought on at the expense of Bangura, with the substitute slotting into the centre of midfield and Nathan Ake switching to left-back.
Eight minutes from time we should have put the game to bed on the break, Ake bursting forward at pace before teeing up Piazon, whose side-footed effort rebounded back off Ripley and away to safety.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Jamal Blackman; Andreas Christensen, Alex Davey, Rohan Ince, Sam Bangura (James Ashton 75); Nathan Ake, Billy Clifford, George Saville (c); Lewis Baker, Isam Feruz (Adam Phillip 62), Lucas Piazon (Daniel Pappoe 89).
Unused substitutes: Mitchell Beeney, Lamisha Musonda.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Connor Ripley; Andre Bennett, Christian Burgess, Kyle Oliver, Lewis Sirrell (Wilson Kneeshaw 79); Matthew Dolan (c) (Jordan Jones 75); Ryan Brobell, Cameron Park, Adam Reach, Matthew Waters; Luke Williams.
Unused substitutes: Shane Bland, Curtis Edwards, Wilson Kneeshaw, Jake Fowler.