Chelsea Under-18s continued their unbeaten start to the season with a fifth win from six matches in the Premier League South, winning 2-1 against Reading thanks to goals from Dion Rankine and George Nunn.
The Blues struck once in each half, Dion Rankine getting the first with a confident finish into the bottom corner one-on-one with the keeper.
George Nunn then extended our lead when he diverted in Charlie Wiggett’s shot at the back post with precise header, but the Hoops pulled one back through Pedro Neves’ volley to stop things being comfortable for the Blues during a lenghty period of added time at the end of the game.
Ed Brand rotated his team with a number of changes to give chances to some of the younger members of the squad and those coming back from injury, with only five players retaining their place from the previous week’s draw at Brighton. Jake Askew came in for Lucas Bergstrom in goal, and captain Sam McClelland was the only one of the back three to remain from Brighton, being flanked by Wiggett and Josh Brooking.
Valentino Livramento continued in the right wing-back spot, but Sam Iling-Junior came in on the left, while Marcel Lewis played a deeper role in midfield with Xavier Simons suspended. Alongside him was Lewis Bate, the only person to have started the Under-19s’ midweek draw with Valencia in the UEFA Youth League and this game.
In attack, Rankine and Joe Haigh remained in the side from the Brighton match, but Armando Broja was replaced by Nunn as the centre-forward, the former dropping to the bench following his scoring performance for the Under-19s on Tuesday.
The first chance arrived for Chelsea with a lightning break-away five minutes in. After a brave block in the wall from a Reading free-kick, Iling-Junior surged forward on the ball with pace and was set free behind the back line by a one-two with Lewis. He just beat the goalkeeper to the ball and knocked it past him, but was forced wide and the defenders recovered in time to block his shot from a tight angle.
Reading were causing problems too, though, particularly with their pace in attack. Their first opportunity came five minutes later, when Lynford Sackey got behind McClelland, but Askew did well to get finger tips to his cross from the edge of the six-yard box and divert it away from the onrushing Claudio Osorio, preventing what almost certainly would have been a goal.
Lewis went close with a bouncing low drive from the edge of the box, after the ball was moved from left to right well by Iling-Junior and Bate, but it swung just wide of the left-hand post with the keeper beaten.
We were definitely making the better of the chances as the game approached the miday point in the first half, one of the most promising coming when Rankine capitalised on some slack passing at the back by Reading and started running at the centre-backs. He squared the ball for Nunn, but his powerful shot was again blocked by the defenders.
Iling-Junior was the next to have a go, getting on the end of Rankine’s deep cross, but his volley flew wide of the near post, and Nunn fired over with a similar opportunity soon after.
We didn’t have to wait much longer for the first goal. Bate found Haigh in a promising position, who ran at the Reading defence before slipping in Rankine. The Chelsea number 10 had too much pace for the defenders to catch and confidently struck the ball low across the keeper and into the bottom-left corner to give us the lead.
Reading came close to equalising immediately, striking the base of the post with a header from a corner, but then we gathered up the loose ball and went straight up the other end on the counter to produce a promising opening for Iling-Junior, but he couldn’t keep his shot down.
The Reading keeper had to be alert to prevent Rankine getting a second shortly before the break, when he reacted quickest to reach the loose ball after a great challenge by the defender took it off Nunn’s foot at the back post following Haigh’s low cross, but Harvey Collins made himself big in the Hoops net to deny Rankine from close range.
Reading started the second half confidently and Osorio twisted and turned his way into our box giving Wiggett problems, but McClelland came across to cover and clear the ball to safety before the striker could get a shot away.
We were causing plenty of problems ourselves, though, one opportunity standing out as Haigh jinked his way through a crowd of defenders to make space for himself, but his low shot from the edge of the box was straight at the goalkeeper.
We were inches away from extending our lead at the end of an excellent counter-attacking move involving Rankine, Haigh and Bate, which ended with Nunn narrowly failing to reach Livramento’s low cross by the smallest of margins with the goal at his mercy.
We were starting to apply increasing amounts of pressure as the second half went on, with Livramento finding plenty of space to exploit out wide on the right, and his next cross found Iling-Junior charging in at the back post, but his downward header bounced back up off the turf and over the crossbar.
When our second goal did arrive it was through a set-piece. Bate’s corner evaded a crowd of bodies in the middle and dropped for Wiggett. It looked like the chance might have gone when his volley bounced high heading wide, but Nunn reacted quickly to head in well at the right-hand post.
Reading were beginning to look a little desperate, not helped by having a second player forced to finish his day early due to injury, as shown when midfielder Malachi Talent-Aryeetey was shown a yellow card by the referee for a dive in the box.
Livramento was continuing to look threatening on the right and came close to scoring a fantastic goal, when he cut inside and struck a sweet shot with left foot, which flew just a whisker over the bar.
However, it was Reading who found the net next, pulling one back against the run of play. Pedro Neves beat the Chelsea defenders to a cross from the right, meeting it around the penalty spot with a right-footed volley that had too much power for Askew to reach.
There was a long pause in play shortly after that goal, as Livramento needed lengthy treatment after being flattened by a late challenge after playing the ball, and that meant his game was also over, being replaced by Jordan Aina as the match resumed with 10 minutes plus added time remaining.
The closing stages saw the Hoops piling on plenty of pressure as they pushed for an equaliser, but they failed to create much in the way of chances or seriously test Askew in the Chelsea goal, with the best opening actually coming at the other end as Iling-Junior forced a good save from Reading’s Collins.
Despite eight minutes of injury time giving the game an uncomfortable finish, it was a deserved victory for the Blues at the final whistle, continuing our excellent form in early stages of this season with a fifth win from six league games in 2019/20.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Jake Askew; Charlie Wiggett, Sam McClelland (c), Josh Brooking; Valentino Livramento (Jordan Aina 80), Marcel Lewis, Lewis Bate, Sam Iling-Junior; Dion Rankine, Joe Haigh (Bashir Humphreys 70); George Nunn (Armando Broja 76)
Unused subs Ethan Wady, James Clark
Scorers Rankine 33, Nunn 67
Reading (4-3-3) Harvey Collins; Jordan Hamilton (Nelson Abbey 37), Josh Hewitt, Jeriel Dorsett (c), Imari Samuels; Ollie Pendlebury, Dejan Tetek, Malachi Talent-Aryeetey; Lynford Sackey (Nahum Melvin-Lambert 67), Claudio Osorio, Pedro Neves
Unused subs James Holden, Alfie Anderson
Scorer Neves 77
Booked Pendlebury 56, Talent-Aryeetey 70
-Match pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom