Our youngsters suffered their first defeat since August as they were beaten on a difficult morning in Manchester.
The Blues were behind early on after D’Mani Mellor opened the scoring and further goals were added in the first half courtesy of Di’shon Bernard and Brandon Williams. Andy Myers’s side were improved after the break but failed to find a route back into the cup contest, meaning they finish runners-up to United in Group F of the Under-18 Premier League Cup.
Our cup defence can still continue if we finish as one of two best runners-up at the conclusion of the group stage, though that now depends on other results and a nervous wait for the holders.
Myers shuffled his pack for this group decider in the Under-18 Premier League Cup, making four changes from last weekend’s home win over Reading. Ethan Wady came in between the sticks for his first start of the season, while Jordan Aina, Henry Lawrence and Armando Broja returned higher up the field.
It was also a change of system for our youngsters as they lined up with a 4-2-3-1 shape, spearheaded in attack by Thierno Ballo. Broja, Lawrence and Marcel Lewis supported the Austrian, while Clinton Mola partnered Jon Russell in central midfield.
Jordan Aina, Jack Wakely, Sam McClelland and Ian Maatsen started from right to left across the back four, hoping to extend a clean sheet run of four in the last five outings.
However, it was United who started brightest on a chilly December morning at Carrington. The Reds had much of the early possession and soon started to carve out chances, with Mason Greenwood’s effort into the side-netting from the left proving an early warning.
The warning went unheeded and Neil Ryan’s side soon took the lead with 11 minutes on the clock, exploiting a short pass back from McClelland and breaking the deadlock through Mellor, who slotted a tidy finish past the onrushing Wady.
Myers’s men were lacking their usual sharpness in tempo and accuracy in the pass, though United were playing a part in that courtesy of a high-pressing game plan. It paid dividends as they doubled their advantage midway through the first period, former Chelsea schoolboy Bernard rising high in the box to meet Arnau Puigmal’s deep free-kick and heading across goal into the far corner.
With the group winners plus two of the best runners-up advancing to the quarter-finals of this competition, the visitors were well aware that goal difference could be significant if they finished second in Group F. They finally settled after half hour and started to probe in the opposition half, though it was United who threatened again next as Greenwood fired a free-kick narrowly over the bar.
It wasn’t until three minutes before the break that we tested James Thompson in the home goal after Mola’s blocked shot fell nicely for Russell to strike, though the keeper was equal to a tame low effort from our midfielder.
The damage was compounded seconds later as the Reds burst down the other end to add a third. Charlie McCann advanced on the break and swept an inviting pass forward for Greenwood, who in turn teed up Williams to steer the ball into the bottom corner.
Myers made changes in personnel and system at half-time, introducing Marcel Lavinier and Dynel Simeu as he reverted to a three-man defence, which sparked an immediate improvement, though opportunities were still few and far between.
Ballo leaped at the near post to flick a header towards goal following a left-sided delivery but it lacked the power to trouble Thompson, before Aliou Traore fired narrowly over down the other end after another swift counter-attack from the hosts.
The Blues probably shaded the second half and ought to have reduced the deficit. Lawrence fashioned a sight at goal but shot straight at Thompson, while Simeu should have done better in the air as Lewis’s corner hung up invitingly for him.
The defender then went close as a loose ball ricocheted around the six-yard box but he couldn’t quite force it over the line and that frustration summed up a tough morning for our youngsters.
These two sides meet again in cup competition in nine days as our FA Youth Cup defence begins at Leigh Sports Village. Our youngsters will be boosted by the availability of development squad regulars Tariq Lamptey, Billy Gilmour, Daishawn Redan and Tino Anjorin, while both Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu are still young enough to be involved.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Ethan Wady; Jordan Aina (Dynel Simeu h/t), Jack Wakely (c), Sam McClelland, Ian Maatsen; Clinton Mola, Jon Russell; Armando Broja (Marcel Lavinier h/t), Henry Lawrence (George Nunn 78), Marcel Lewis; Thierno Ballo
Unused subs Jake Askew, Pierre Ekwah Elimby
Manchester United James Thompson, Arnau Puigmal, Brandon Williams (c), Di’shon Bernard, James Garner, Dylan Levitt, Ethan Galbraith (Largie Ramazani 64), Aliou Traore, Mason Greenwood, D’Mani Mellor, Charlie McCann (Connor Stanley 86)
Unused subs Reece Devine, Jacob Carney, Lukasz Bejger
Scorers Mellor 11; Bernard 21; Williams 42
Booked Garner, Traore
Referee Edward Duckworth