The development squad fell short of an opening day win at Oxford United as a narrow 2-1 defeat in the EFL Trophy got the season underway.
It was a game of football in which Chelsea perhaps deserved more. Andy Myers's team looked the more comfortable from the first whistle and would have been disappointed to concede in the manner they did for the opener.
Oxford's Dan Agyei was first to react to a deflected cross and turned home from close range, completely against the run of play. While Oxford were happy with their lead, Chelsea searched for a response but after a few missed chances the hosts struck again, moments before the break, meaning we had a lot to do in the second half.
An inspired change at the break saw the young Blues earn a goal back - Jon Russell, who scored in this competition against Plymouth last season, found the net shortly before an hour's play. The goal sparked life into the young side, who dominated possesion but couldn't find that final touch to salvage at least a point from the opening game of the season.
The young Blues
Myers' first team selection of the 2020/21 campaign had a mix of youth and experience in this competition. Luke McCormick, Juan Castillo and George McEachran are no strangers to the EFL Trophy, while it was a first outing for Lucas Bergstrom, Lewis Bate and Tino Livramento.
The development squad was boosted by the return of Levi Colwill, whose season ended prematurely in February after sustaining an injury in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge, while Bergstrom was making his first appearance in blue for eight months following surgery on his knee.
Each side could be forgiven for having to dust off a few cobwebs in the early moments - it had been six months since the last piece of competitive action for Chelsea, while Oxford began their season on Saturday afternoon in the EFL Cup. A few misplaced passes meant possession was scrappy as the game got warm.
The young Blues started positively and matched the senior side in battle, looking to open pockets of space for our fluid midfield to exploit, and we weren’t made to wait too long for a first Chelsea chance. Thierno Ballo found an inch of space on the edge of the box but his tame strike was too easy for Jack Steven to gather.
That warning was enough for the home side to spark a reaction, and that they did through lively forward Agyei, who bundled the ball home from close range following a cross from the right flank. We trailed after the first 17 minutes.
Blues looked bright
It was Chelsea’s turn to react after falling behind and we came close to levelling the scores when Livramento picked out McCormick in the centre. A curled attempt from the midfielder had Stevens stretching across his goal-line but it dropped just beyond the woodwork.
Since conceding, Chelsea looked the more threatening of the teams and enjoyed possession with McCormick involved in all areas of the pitch. Henry Lawrence was under instruction to stay wide and it was from that position he whipped in a tempting cross which Ballo threw himself at but couldn’t connect with, slamming into the post as a result.
Ballo looked our main goal threat as he led the line and a smart ball into the box from Castillo picked out the Austrian’s well-timed run. He took a touch to control it but struck over from inside the six-yard box. It was an opportunity we would regret.
The combination of Ballo and Castillo proved effective again, this time the former turning provider for the Dutchman’s darting run into the box. On his favoured left foot, the attempt to pick out the bottom corner was bravely thwarted by Stevens.
As the break approached, Oxford increasingly had to rely on counter-attacks and successfully won a corner from one with a couple of minutes left on the clock. The ball was swung in towards a man in yellow who had a free header on goal and looked to have found the net but for some goal-line heroics from local man McEachran, who made an impressive clearance which looked to have kept the deficit at one, until moments later.
A minute’s injury time was signalled by the referee and frustratingly it was just enough time for the home side to double their lead. This time, Derick Osei-Yaw was able to slip through the defence and slot beyond Bergstrom.
Myers opted for a change at the break, Russell taking the place of Bate in a like-for-like swap as Chelsea looked to get back into the game. There was almost an immediate impact from the midfield man as he struck at goal from close range, forcing Stevens to pat the ball away from danger.
Five minutes after his first contribution, Russell was sure to make his next count. Livramento carried the ball into the final third and was patient in picking out the run of Russell, who fired hard and low into the bottom corner. Deficit reduced and game on at 2-1.
Chelsea again looked the more threatening with the ball and Lawrence linked well with Livramento to sting the fingertips of Stevens, whose fortunate parry landed at the feet of a man in yellow.
It was evident the teams began to tire and Chelsea looked to capitalise on that by introducing George Nunn and Myles Peart-Harris, both attacking changes as Myers looked to rescue something from the game.
Six minutes remained on the clock when a deflected cross dropped perfectly for Ian Maatsen at the back post and his left-footed volley headed for the bottom corner, bringing the Blues bench off their seats until a stretched Oxford leg blocked its path, yards before it nestled in the back of the net.
The last throw of the dice for Chelsea was to send keeper Bergstrom up for a corner in the final minute. The 6ft 7in man was the target and almost got his head to the ball after forcing his way through a sea of home bodies, however with that chance came the final whistle which marked the end of our return to action.
Next for the development squad is the start of their Premier League 2 title defence. Division one newcomers West Ham will be the first visitors to our new home Kingsmeadow and we kick-off at 1pm on Monday afternoon.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Lucas Bergstrom; Henry Lawrence, Dynel Simeu (c), Levi Colwill, Ian Maatsen; George McEachran, Lewis Bate (Jon Russell ht); Tino Livramento, Luke McCormick (Myles Peart-Harris 77), Juan Castillo; Thienro Ballo (George Nunn 74)
Unused subs Ethan Wady, Pierre Ekwah-Elimby, Marcel Lewis, Xavier Simons
Scorer Russell 53
Oxford United Jack Stevens, Sean Clare, Rob Hall (Malachi Napa 74), Mark Sykes (Cameron Brannagan 58), Sam Long, Anthony Forde, John Mousinho (c), Dan Agyei, Liam Kelly (Marcus McGuane 58), Derrick Osei-Yaw, Nico Jones
Unused subs Simon Eastwood, Elliott Moore, Dylan Asonganyi
Scorer Agyei 17, Osei-Yaw (45+1)
Referee Trevor Kettle