Our youngsters scored twice in the final 10 minutes to come from behind and earn a point in the Under-18 Premier League.
After controlling much of the first half play, albeit without fashioning clear-cut opportunities, we fell behind just before the break when Christian Norton headed in from close range. Southampton then doubled their lead after 79 minutes through Will Ferry and it looked like a disappointing defeat was on the cards for Andy Myers’s side.
However, their fighting spirit never wavered and a late rally snatched a draw from the grasp of defeat. Ben Greenwood has been on trial at Cobham in recent weeks and marked his first appearance for our Under-18s with a goal to halve the deficit, before fellow substitute Pierre Ekwah Elimby curled in a stunning stoppage-time free-kick to make it 2-2. It left the players with mixed feelings at the final whistle, relieved with one point but disappointed to two at home that may prove costly in the southern title race.
There were three changes for the hosts from last weekend’s 3-2 win away at Leicester City, with schoolboy Tino Livramento and Jordan Aina coming into the side at wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 system. Jake Askew replaced Karlo Ziger in goal after the Croatian’s loan move to Sutton United earlier in the week, while Sam McClelland, Jack Wakely and Clinton Mola continued across the back three.
Marcel Lewis bagged a brace in the Midlands seven days previously and he lined up in the same attacking midfield role supporting strikers Thierno Ballo and George Nunn, while Henry Lawrence partnered Jon Russell in central midfield.
A three-way title race has materialised in the Under-18 Premier League South, with just three points separating the leaders Tottenham, second-placed Arsenal and Andy Myers’s side in third coming into the second round of fixtures in 2019. The Blues had started quickly last week, racing into a 3-0 lead at Leicester inside 15 minutes, but this was a more subdued opening on a cold morning in Cobham.
Neither side conjured a chance of note in the opening 15 minutes as the Saints worked hard to close us down in possession. Russell jumped highest to reach a left-sided corner swung in by Lewis but failed to guide his header on target, while the visitors looked to expose our high defensive line without success.
Lawrence forced the first save of the game from Jack Bycroft after 19 minutes, latching on to a neat reverse pass from Lewis and angling a low strike from the right that was gathered comfortably by the Southampton goalkeeper.
Down the other end, Kornelius Hansen fashioned some space advancing infield from the left wing, though his effort lacked the power or precision to unduly trouble Askew. Our youngsters had only dropped two of their previous 27 league points but this was proving a tough assignment against the side sixth in the table, despite our dominance of possession.
Our best chance of the half fell to Lawrence midway through following a neat passage of build-up play, though the midfielder skied his shot high over the crossbar. Lewis turned provider again moments later, delivering an inviting cross from the left for Ballo, yet the Austrian’s flick was wide of the target.
Southampton grew in threat as the half wore on, eventually breaking the deadlock a minute before the break. The warning signs were there after Will Ferry curled a dipping free-kick narrowly over from the edge of the box and Norton turned a close-range effort over, before the striker headed his team into the lead.
Ferry and Caleb Watts combined well down the right and the latter stood up a simple cross to the back post, where Norton had escaped into space to nod the ball in from a couple of yards out. It was a blow to the young Blues so late in the half and things almost got worse early after the restart as Hansen drilled a low strike inside the near post that required a strong right hand from Askew.
Ferry then attempted an ambitious effort cutting inside from the right that sailed over and from that point on, the Chelsea pressure started to intensify. Lewis remained central to much of our good attacking work, firing just over from 25 yards before delivering a free-kick that Wakely attacked but failed to meet with sufficient contact.
However, the Saints remained largely comfortable in defence, restricting the home side to efforts from distance. Lawrence struck low but tamely before substitutes Greenwood and Armando Broja combined for a sight at goal, though the latter’s header proved a routine gather for Bycroft.
Craig Fleming’s side also retained an attacking threat of their own, Roland Idowu volleying just over before Ferry doubled their lead with 11 minutes to play. It was an intricate move that cut through our defence, handing the Irish youngster an opportunity to cut inside on to his preferred left foot and slot the ball past Askew for 2-0.
With our youngsters blunt in the final third, it seemed that would be enough to secure a third successive Southampton victory, though Myers’s side kept on battling and quickly reduced the arrears. Bycroft initially saved brilliantly from Nunn but Greenwood, the teenage trialist, was on hand to turn the rebound over the line.
Belief suddenly surged through the ranks, the Blues determined to avoid just a second home defeat in almost four years. Ballo had a smart shot well held by the goalkeeper, while Askew saved from Ferry to keep us in the contest.
With time almost up, a foul from Saints skipper Kameron Ledwidge presented one final opportunity. Ekwah Elimby, introduced in the aftermath of us falling two goals behind, took responsibility and bent a brilliant free-kick over the wall and into the top corner. It was practically the last kick of the game and earned an unlikely draw, though two dropped points leaves us further behind in the race for the title.
Chelsea (3-4-1-2) Jake Askew; Sam McClelland, Jack Wakely (c), Clinton Mola; Tino Livramento, Jon Russell (Pierre Ekwah Elimby 82), Henry Lawrence, Jordan Aina (Ben Greenwood 61); Marcel Lewis (Armando Broja 66); Thierno Ballo, George Nunn
Unused subs Ethan Wady, Dynel Simeu
Scorers Greenwood 82; Ekwah Elimby 90+4
Southampton Jack Bycroft, Ryan Cluett (James Morris 80), Kameron Ledwidge (c), Caleb Watts (Roland Idowu 55), David Agbontahoma, Alan Tchaptchet, Kornelius Hanson (Enzo Robise 50), Dan Bartlett, Christian Norton, Taymar Fleary, Will Ferry
Unused subs Olly Wright, Callum Watts
Scorers Norton 44; Ferry 79
Booked Cluett, Ledwidge
-Pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom