Three second-half goals sealed a come-from-behind victory for Chelsea Under-19s as we kicked off our UEFA Youth League campaign with a win at Cobham.
Zenit St Petersburg were the visitors in a warm-up for this evening’s senior Champions League action and the Russians made it tough with a resilient opening during which they took a surprise lead through Evgeny Kim.
The Blues were wasteful at times but finally turned the game on its head with three quick goals in 20 minutes in the second period. Charlie Webster fired us level before Harvey Vale dispatched a penalty and Jude Soonsup-Bell rounded off the scoring late on.
Following the cancellation of last season’s competition due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this was the first UEFA Youth League team picked by Andy Myers in 21 months and it therefore contained plenty of new faces experiencing European club football at this level for the first time.
The only survivors from the side that started a 1-1 draw with Lille at Cobham in December 2019 were Sam McClelland, who captained the young Blues in this latest outing, and Dion Rankine.
Myers opted for a 3-4-3 system, with McClelland at the heart of our back three alongside Bashir Humphreys and Brodi Hughes, protecting Teddy Sharman-Lowe in goal. Silko Thomas and Rankine were used as wing-backs, with Lewis Hall partnering Webster in central midfield.
Up top, Soonsup-Bell led the line supported by Ronnie Stutter and Vale, the latter with four goals for our development squad already this term and Stutter with five for our Under-18s.
Joy down the left
After a pre-match downpour under blanket grey clouds in Surrey, the hosts made a promising start on the slick turf at our Cobham training base. Vale and Thomas combined well on the left flank, interchanging between overlapping on the outside and drifting into pockets of space infield to good effect.
It was Vale who fashioned the game’s first opportunity just five minutes in with a measured delivery into the six-yard box that Arseniy Zigangirov, the Zenit captain, did well to turn behind from right underneath his own crossbar. From the resulting corner, a curling ball swung in by Webster, goalkeeper Daniil Odoevski punched to safety.
Thomas was fresh from signing his first professional contract at the club last week and appeared brimming with confidence, skipping past his direct opponent Elisei Emelianov with growing ease and forcing the right-back into the book inside 15 minutes.
Shortly afterwards, he latched on to a brilliant cross-field pass from Hall and jinked dangerously into the box but opted to go for goal rather than pass and smashed his effort into the side-netting.
Russian resilience and reward
The boys from St Petersburg were set up in a compact shape but still carried a threat of their own, initially testing Sharman-Lowe through forward Daniil Kuznetsov before Ilia Rodionov curled narrowly wide.
Down the other end, a familiar theme was developing as left-sided attacks brought promise but no dent to the scoreline. Vale pounced on an error to advance and teed up Stutter with a clever cutback but the striker’s shot span wide, while Soonsup-Bell twice went close with efforts that failed to trouble Odoevski.
As can so often be the case in this competition, the visitors soon punished Chelsea’s profligacy by breaking the deadlock with a goal of their own. Kim skipped away from Hughes on the edge of the box and drilled a fine finish past Sharman-Lowe into the far bottom corner.
It could have been worse for the young Blues within seconds as Kim again took aim, this time from a little further out and with the end result seeing the ball whistle just wide.
Yet our best chance came just before the break as a quick attack paid dividends and the ball found its way across the box to Stutter, who slammed a shot against the post. Even later in the half, Humphreys stepped forward from centre-back and Soonsup-Bell manoeuvred some space with a brilliant first touch to swivel and shoot but the effort flew over.
In added time, Stutter saw a close-range strike blocked and Thomas volleyed wide on the rebound following penalty box pinball as our pressure intensified.
It didn’t take long in the second half for the Blues to finally break Zenit’s resolve, with Stutter providing an early warning sign when he headed wide from a tight angle a few yards out following Hall’s corner.
Relief and celebration soon came with the equaliser after 52 minutes as Webster finally found a finish for the hosts, arrowing the ball into the top corner from eight yards out after Soonsup-Bell had seen another shot blocked.
With the tide turning in Chelsea’s favour, the momentum built for Myers’s men, with Soonsup-Bell’s free-kick and then Hughes’s long-range drive stinging the palms of Odoevski between the Zenit posts.
The game truly swung midway through the second period with the concession of a penalty and a red card for the visitors. Soonsup-Bell was the eager protagonist, running on to the end of a long kick forward from Sharman-Lowe and getting the wrong side of defender Artem Kasimov, who clipped his legs.
The Irish referee was perhaps a touch harsh in showing a red card for what could have been deemed a genuine attempt to play the ball but Chelsea weren’t complaining and Vale showed no reprieve from 12 yards, drilling the ball down the middle to make it 2-1.
Soonsup-Bell’s search for a goal of his own continued into the final 20 minutes after he was denied a brilliant individual effort by Odoevski’s fine save down low to the right but the 17-year-old was finally on the scoresheet moments later as he produced a simple finish to turn in Vale’s cross.
With the Blues a man up and in control of the points, it was a dominant final 15 minutes of action, with the only blot coming as Vale spurned the opportunity to add another goal when he skied a penalty over the bar after substitute Joe Haigh had been upended at the end of a mazy run.
Nevertheless, this was a positive day for our Under-19s, who start Group H with three goals and three points on the board ahead of a trip to Juventus later in the month.
Weekend action starts with an Under-18 Premier League Cup tie for our youth team at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday morning. After that, our development squad are at Stamford Bridge on Sunday lunchtime for a London derby against Arsenal in Premier League 2.
Chelsea (3-4-3) Teddy Sharman-Lowe; Brodi Hughes, Sam McClelland (c), Bashir Humphreys (Billy Gee 57); Dion Rankine (Ben Elliott 77), Charlie Webster (Joe Haigh 60), Lewis Hall (Leo Castledine 77), Silko Thomas; Ronnie Stutter (Bryan Fiabema 77), Jude Soonsup-Bell, Harvey Vale
Unused subs Teddy Curd, Jayden Wareham
Scorers Webster 52; Vale (pen) 69; Soonsup-Bell 72
Booked Hall 20; Soonsup-Bell 27
Zenit (4-3-3) Daniil Odoevski; Elisei Emelianov (Matvey Troshchenkov 56), Artem Kasimov, Arseniy Zigangirov (c) (Valerii Murzakov 67), Aleksandr Sanrdachuk; Evgeny Kim (Roni Mikhailovskii 75), Ruslan Khailoev, Ilia Rodionov (Vladislav Saus 56); Andrey Maryanov, Akim Belokhonov (Savva Kotov 75), Daniil Kuznetsov
Unused subs Georgii Korolev, Aleksandr Emilianov
Scorer Kim 33
Sent off Kasimov 68
Booked Emelianov 12
Referee Rob Hennessy from Ireland
-In other Academy news, Bradley Ryan has signed for the club following a successful trial from Welling United and Silko Thomas has signed his first professional contract with the Blues.