Our Under-18s had to settle for a point in the top-of-the-table clash away at Brighton & Hove Albion, securing a draw through Armando Broja’s goal despite going down to 10 men late on.
Going into the match on the south coast, both these teams had won every fixture this season, leaving them joint top of the table.
After a tight first half which Chelsea just edged, we took the lead straight after half-time when Broja turned in a deflected low cross from close range. However, the home side equalised when Lucas Bergstrom was beaten by a good header and our task of securing all three points was made more difficult when Xavier Simons was sent off with eight minutes of the 90 remaining.
Bergstrom returned in goal in place of Jake Askew, while in front of him Dynel Simeu was back in the defensive three, alongside captain Sam McClelland and Bashir Humphreys. That saw Levi Colwill move forward to the right wing-back spot, as Valentino Livramento continued on the other wing, but Simons came in to partner Lewis Bate in midfield. Broja led the line up front, with Dion Rankine behind him and Joe Haigh coming into the team with him to replace Marcel Lewis, who had featured for the development squad the previous evening.
The potential importance of the match was clearly felt by the players of both teams as the game began with a breathless intensity, each side trying to build from the back and move the ball around at pace while pressing relentlessly to deny the opposition time and space.
With two quality sides in great form facing off, chances were few and far between in the opening exchanges. However, Chelsea started to exert some control over the proceedings as the game passed the 15-minute mark.
The first real chance of the game came after Haigh had won a corner by pressuring the Brighton defenders high up the pitch. He took the kick himself and floated the ball to the back post, where it was met by Simeu, but his header could only ripple the side netting.
Haigh then had a chance to open the scoring himself, as a snappy interchange with Rankine set him free in the box, but the goalkeeper was quick off his line and made himself big to deny the Chelsea man.
We threatened again from a set-piece after Haigh was fouled out wide on the left, this time McClelland meeting Bate’s free-kick, but his powerful header was straight at the keeper.
To this point our own goalkeeper had been largely untested, apart from mopping up the odd loose long ball, but that was about to change. Bergstrom had to be at full stretch down low to his right to produce a brilliant save when a low cross had found Brighton striker Jack Leahy free on the penalty spot.
We were again frustrated to see the ball bulge the net on the wrong side of the post, this time Broja going close after latching on to Rankine’s through-ball.
However, Rankine needed treatment for an injury soon afterwards. The referee took the opportunity to allow the players a water break on a hot, sunny day on the south coast, but when play resumed it was without Rankine, who had to be replaced by George Nunn.
The referee then issued the first yellow card of the game, to Brighton captain Antef Tsoungui for a trip on Haigh when the Chelsea man surged forward trying to launch a counter, in what proved to be the last attack of the half.
However, when the second half kicked off, it took no time at all for Chelsea to find the breakthrough. Less than two minutes after the restart, Livramento got free down the right and drove towards the line. When his low cross was deflected awkwardly by the Brighton defender, there was Broja reacting quickest and stretching to get the crucial toe on the ball and turn it in from close range, continuing the striker’s excellent run of goals this season.
The Seagulls perhaps should have had an almost instant reply, as a free-kick into the box found their big centre-back in plenty of space, but he couldn’t strike his volley cleanly, allowing Bergstrom to comfortably claim the ball.
There was nearly a golden opportunity for the Blues too, as a defensive mistake presented a chance to Nunn inside the box, but it seemed to take even him by surprise and he couldn’t get his shot on target, with the ball bouncing at an awkward height.
Broja made way for Pierre Ekwah Elimby on 59 minutes, the substitute dropping into midfield alongside Bate as Nunn took the striker’s role and Simons pushed forward with Haigh.
Brighton’s frustration was starting to show now as they chased an equaliser, and the referee gave Tsoungui, who had already been booked, a stern final warning after he had booted the ball away upfield in frustration after giving away another foul.
Brand chose to use his third and final substitution with a little over 20 minutes remaining, as James Clark came on for Colwill, taking up a spot on the right wing with Livramento switching sides.
However, the home side equalised soon after that change, as a hopeful high ball into the box was met by the Brighton substitute Lorent Tolaj, whose low header into the corner gave Bergstrom no chance.
We had the ball in the net ourselves before long, Haigh applying the finish after he and Nunn had capitalised on a mistake in possession by the goalkeeper, but the referee called play back after judging Nunn to have committed a foul in the build up.
Things got difficult for Chelsea with eight minutes left, after Simons went in too strongly on a 50-50 ball for the referee’s liking. Despite appearing to win the ball, and coming out much the worse of the two players, needing lengthy treatment afterwards, the offical waited for Simons to hobble to his feet before showing him a straight red card.
The referee then further frustrated the Blues players as he turned down a strong penalty shout, when Haigh went down in the box under pressure as he tried to get on the end of Nunn’s through-ball.
Despite being a man down, Chelsea continued to enjoy the most possession in the closing stages, although it was Brighton who had the last chance when Tolaj got behind the defence on a counter-attack, but Bergstrom showed great composure to stay on his feet until the crucial moment and save at his near post.
So, by the final whistle both teams saw their 100 per cent records come to an end with a respectable draw between two teams who gave everything, having to settle for a point each which they both had to work hard for.
Brighton (4-4-2) Adam Desbois; Ayo Tanimowo, Bobby Copping, Ed Turns, James Furlong; Todd Miller (Ben Wilson 76), Marc Leonard, Antef Tsoungui (c) (Odell Offiah 76), Sam Packham; Jack Leahy, Steff Vukoje (Lorent Tolaj h-t)
Unused subs Toby Bull, Marcus Dakkers
Scorer Tolaj 70
Booked Tsoungui 45, Copping 88
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Lucas Bergstrom; Dynel Simeu, Sam McClelland (c), Bashir Humphreys; Valentino Livramento, Lewis Bate, Xavier Simons, Levi Colwill (James Clark 68); Dion Rankine (George Nunn 36), Joe Haigh; Armando Broja (Pierre Ekwak Elimby 59)
Unused subs Jake Askew, Charlie Wiggett
Scorer Broja 47
Sent off Simons 82
-Pictures courtesy of Lewis Maku