UNDER-21S REPORT: SUNDERLAND 2 CHELSEA 2
Chelsea's Under-21 side were forced to settle for a draw following a thrilling encounter at the Stadium of Light this afternoon.
An experienced Sunderland side took an early lead through a superb Duncan Watmore strike, but Islam Feruz levelled almost immediately following a mistake from Modibo Diakite. Chances came and went for both sides before a stunning long-range effort from Alex Kiwomya (pictured) gave the Blues the advantage midway through the second period.
It was a lead they couldn't hold on to for long as Watmore struck again for the hosts, with a point apiece probably the fairest outcome.
Chelsea manager Dermot Drummy made five changes from the side that beat Manchester City at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago. With Mitchell Beeney on first team duty, Bradley Collins was selected between the sticks for his debut at Under-21 level. Fankaty Dabo and Kevin Wright both started in the full-back positions, while Billy Clifford came into the midfield for his second appearance of the season, replacing Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who dropped to the bench. Isaiah Brown was on international duty for England's Under-17 side, so Ambrose Gnahore was rewarded for his impressive recent form at Under-18 level with a start in the front three.
Sunderland fielded a strong starting 11, with no fewer than five having appeared for their first team, including experienced central defender Wes Brown and striker Connor Wickham.
Sunderland started the brighter and were rewarded for their early dominance through Duncan Watmore. The winger cut on to his left foot on the angle of the 18-yard box and curled the ball into the far corner, giving Collins no chance. Five minutes had been played.
It didn't take long for Chelsea to hit back, though, and the equaliser owed much to the hard work of Feruz. Diakite's pass back to his keeper was a little short, with the Scottish striker alert enough to charge down Joel Dixon's attempted clearance. Feruz was then quickest to the loose ball, firing into the net on the spin to level the scores.
Pre-match rain made for a slick playing surface, and a lovely passing move from the Blues almost completed the turnaround soon after. John Swift was heavily involved, linking well with Lewis Baker and Clifford, before picking out Gnahore. His cross found Feruz but the striker's first-time snap shot just cleared Dixon's bar.
An inch-perfect long ball from Clifford set Kiwomya free but David Ferguson recovered brilliantly to tackle the flying winger before he could pull the trigger.
Sunderland were the next to threaten and really should have re-taken the lead moments later, but David Moberg Karlsson miscued his volley from between the posts after Kevin Wright could only direct a defensive header straight into the Swede's path.
The home side had looked at their most dangerous when attacking down their right and it was no surprise when first Liam Marrs and then Watmore made incisive runs on that side of the pitch which almost got them back ahead. First, Collins did well to produce a point-blank stop from Gorrin after fine work from Marrs before Watmore's inviting cross was crucially intercepted by Baker.
Chelsea were largely restricted to long shots before the break, as Swift then Baker couldn't beat Dixon from distance. In between Gnahore could only shoot into the Sunderland stopper's side-netting.
A slow start to the second half was punctuated by the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who replaced his fellow England U-19 midfielder John Swift. The change almost reaped manager Drummy immediate dividends but Baker's half-volley, following good work from the substitute Loftus-Cheek, flew wide with Dixon scrambling across his goal.
Collins had to be at his most alert on the hour to dive at the feet of Wickham after a delicate flick from Gorrin had released the £8 million man.
Chelsea's long-range efforts had been excellent throughout, and it was no surprise when we took the lead in spectacular fashion with 20 minutes left on the clock. Baker forced Dixon to tip over his bar, and from the resulting corner Kiwomya eventually picked the ball up 25 yards from goal. His right-foot shot swerved away from Dixon and nestled in the corner of the goal to put the Blues ahead.
This time it was our turn to fail to hold on to the lead. The warning signs were there when Gorrin's point-blank header was well-saved by Collins, but they were not heeded in time. Strong running from Watmore caused chaos in our backline. The ball looped to Wickham, who flicked his shot over Collins, and Watmore, continuing his run, was on hand to volley home the loose ball.
Sunderland ended the game the stronger, and wasted a number of late chances to snatch the three points. Dabo cleared a header off the line, and Wickham then produced the save of the match from Collins, who, at full-stretch, brilliantly clawed the striker's effort away. Watmore's direct running teed up Wickham again but he failed to hit the target from 12 yards out, much to the despondency of the home fans. Feruz and then Wickham had chances to win it in stoppage time but an entertaining game drew to a close with the points shared.
Dermot Drummy was understandably thrilled with his young side's performance against an experienced Sunderland outfit.
'I'm absolutely delighted,' the manager enthused. 'All of our players bar Alex Davey and Billy Clifford are Under-19s. We've performed admirably.
'Feruz got an opportunists' goal and though we rode our luck a bit in the first half I thought we controlled the game in the second half.
'Alex Kiwomya scored a great goal, too. We made chances, kept the ball and played some great football against an experienced team. Sunderland are a very good side. I've got a lot of respect for Kevin Ball because of the way he conducts himself and his teams. To come away with a point from here, with the team that we've come up with, is wonderful.'
Chelsea (4-3-3): Bradley Collins; Fankaty Dabo, Andreas Christensen (Alex Davey 65), Nathan Ake (c), Kevin Wright; Lewis Baker, John Swift (Ruben Loftus-Cheek 57), Billy Clifford; Alex Kiwomya (Adam Nditi 90), Islam Feruz, Ambrose Gnahore.
Unused substitutes: Mark Beeney.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Joel Dixon; Liam Marrs, Wes Brown, Modibo Diakite, David Ferguson; Duncan Watmore, Adilson Cabral (Craig Lynch 83), El-Hadji Ba (Liam Agnew 31), David Moberg Karlsson (Adam Mitchell 89); Alex Gorrin, Connor Wickham.
Unused substitutes: John Egan, Peter Burke.