Our development squad led for almost an hour but returned home from the north-west with nothing to show for their efforts as they lost to a late Liverpool strike.
It was a perfect start from the Blues, who raced into a 2-0 lead inside half an hour courtesy of a brace from Conor Gallagher. The midfielder opened the scoring within a few minutes, turning in from close range following Tariq Lamptey’s cross, before a terrific team move was finished with a powerful strike into the top corner.
Liverpool recovered and reduced the deficit before half-time as Ben Woodburn converted from the spot before Abdi Sharif equalised six minutes after the restart. There were chances for both sides to grab the significant fifth goal in the final 30 minutes but the last word went to Reds winger Curtis Jones, who fired in a fierce strike to seal maximum points for his side.
Three days on from seeing his Under-19 side triumph on penalties to book a place in the UEFA Youth League semi-finals, Edwards shifted focus back to domestic matters. There were three changes from the team that lined up for the win over Dinamo Zagreb in midweek, with Richard Nartey, George McEachran and Tariq Uwakwe all drafted into the starting 11 for the trip to Merseyside.
There was a tactical tinkering in team shape too as the Blues started with a 3-4-2-1 system. Daishawn Redan led the line up front supported by Gallagher and Uwakwe, while Billy Gilmour sat alongside McEachran in a slightly deeper midfield position.
Karlo Ziger retained his place in goal following two impressive shoot-out saves against his countrymen on Wednesday and the Croatian was protected by a back three of Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi and Nartey. Tariq Lampety and Ian Maatsen, two of five starters still eligible to play for the youth team, were deployed as wing-backs.
Liverpool included in their ranks two teenagers with first team experience in the form of Ki-Jana Hoever and Woodburn, the latter an international teammate of Ethan Ampadu with the Wales national side. Yet there was almost nothing separating the two sides in the PL2 table at the start of play, the Reds one place above us in fourth courtesy of a narrowly superior goal difference.
With the sun shining on Merseyside, conditions were perfect for an afternoon of football at the Kirkby Academy and, just like in the reverse fixture at Aldershot back in September, it didn’t take long for the deadlock to be broken. However, on this occasion it was Edwards’s side celebrating an early lead as Gallagher notched his third goal of the campaign from close range.
It was a goal that owed much to the midfielder’s England Under-19 colleague as Lamptey motored away from Tony Gallacher down the right flank and steered an inviting cross into the six-yard box, handing Gallagher a simple finish from a few yards out.
Liverpool’s response was delayed and the visitors continued to freely fashion chances to extend their advantage before the hosts settled. Lamptey stole possession and once again supplied for Gallagher, whose shot was gathered by Caoimhin Kelleher. The Irish keeper then denied Uwakwe with a smart save down low to his right before collecting Colley’s audacious back-heeled effort from the resulting corner.
The Reds had struggled to cope with a high-energy start from Edwards’s boys but the tempo slowed slightly as the half progressed, resulting in a more even share of possession even if the home side were unable to translate that into a serious goal threat.
Gallagher continued to prove the attacking spark for our youngsters, who were searching for the three points that would take them third in the league. His curling effort from the edge of the box after 27 minutes lacked the requisite power to beat Kelleher but there was no denying the teenager his second of the afternoon moments later.
It was a goal of the season contender that added to our tally, a team move starting with Ziger and worked down the right with a series of quick passing exchanges. Lamptey provided the trickery in the box, twisting one way and then the other before cutting back for Gallagher, whose rising drive had too much clout for the goalkeeper to keep out.
Liverpool were rattled but there was plenty of room for improvement and they enjoyed their best spell of the game in the 10 minutes before the break. Guehi was forced to clear Glen McAuley’s centre from under his own crossbar and then Jones proved instrumental when skipping past Lamptey and going down under the defender’s challenge.
It looked like sufficient contact was made and the Chelsea protests were muted as the referee pointed to the spot. Ziger’s research was spot-on in the week and his two penalty saves were crucial in our 4-2 shoot-out victory, though the 17-year-old was helpless on this occasion as Woodburn found the back of the net from 12 yards.
In the classic football truism of ‘goals change games’, the balance of the contest quickly shifted against the Blues, who appeared to be counting down the minutes until half-time. Jones headed a decent chance over after a cross from the right, while Sharif fired just wide as Neil Critchley’s side ended the half in the ascendancy.
The Reds restarted on the front foot as well and only a clearance from Nartey in the nick of time denied McAuley a clear strike at goal following a neat cushioned header into the striker’s path from Jones. Yet parity was soon restored when Woodburn turned provider with a measured cross and Sharif slid in at the far post to squeeze a finish past Ziger.
Our impressive away record in the league had garnered six wins from nine games this term but a spirited effort was now required to ensure we would not return to London empty-handed. Edwards made changes from the touchline, introducing his three outfield players in quick succession around the midway point of the half.
His team went close to conjuring a third goal during that time as the effective Gallagher latched on to a ball in the box, though Kelleher proved equal to the effort and kept the shot out with his legs. Chelsea were rejuvenated with fresh legs and sensed an opportunity to steal all three points.
Substitute Charlie Brown volleyed over on the stretch and then found the back of the net shortly afterwards, though his tap-in from Gallagher’s cross was ruled out by the linesman’s flag. Such a close call went against the young Blues and it was the same story as the game moved into the final 10 minutes when Luke McCormick felt he had earned a penalty.
The midfielder raced clear through the middle and appeared to go down in a collision with the goalkeeper, though the officials waved away the strong appeals. Gilmour tested Kelleher with a deflected drive and McEachran saw an effort blocked behind before Liverpool snatched the victory with three minutes remaining.
Jones, the tricky winger, provided the skill to separate the sides, jinking into the box before firing an unstoppable strike inside the near post beyond the stranded Ziger. It inflicted a second defeat in five games on our development squad, who return to action against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge next Monday 15 April.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Karlo Ziger; Joseph Colley, Richard Nartey, Marc Guehi; Tariq Lamptey (Luke McCormick 64), George McEachran, Billy Gilmour, Ian Maatsen (Juan Castillo 57); Tariq Uwakwe, Conor Gallagher; Daishawn Redan (Charlie Brown 64)
Unused sub Nicolas Tie
Scorer Gallagher 3, 28
Booked McCormick, Gallagher, Brown
Liverpool Caoimhin Kelleher, Corey Whelan, Tony Gallacher, Ki-Jana Hoever, George Johnston (c), Liam Coyle (Conor Masterson 79), Ben Woodburn, Abdi Sharif, Glen McAuley, Adam Lewis (Jack Bearne 79), Curtis Jones
Unused subs Shamal George, Juanma Garcia
Scorers Woodburn (pen) 41; Sharif 51; Jones 87
Booked Woodburn, Johnston
Referee Andrew Miller