Chelsea Under-18s opened our league campaign with an away win at last season’s champions by beating Arsenal 2-1 in north London.
The Blues made an excellent start to 2019/20, controlling the first half and arguably deserving more than the one-goal lead we were handed when Armando Broja finished off a rapid counter-attack with a calm finish one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
The second period was more even as the strong wind had a big impact on the match, but we extended our lead with a second strike from Broja, this time slotting in from close range after excellent work on the right by Dion Rankine.
Arsenal pulled a goal back almost immediately, but the Blues were not to be denied a massive opening-day win in the Under-18 Premier League South.
New coach Ed Brand’s first competitive line-up featured many of the faces who had featured towards the end of last season under Andy Myers. Lucas Bergstrom took the goalkeeper’s jersey, protected by a back three of Henry Lawrence, Dynel Simeu and Levi Colwill. A central midfield pairing of Xavier Simons and Lewis Bate was flanked by wing-backs Tino Livramento and Rankine, while Myles Peart-Harris and Thierno Ballo supported striker Broja.
Chelsea’s first sight of goal came five minutes in when Ballo swivelled on the edge of the box to create space for himself, but he dragged his low drive wide of the left post.
Ballo was on target soon after from a similar position, after being teed up by Rankine, who found plenty of space on the left, but this time it was a simple save for the goalkeeper.
It was from a set-piece that we came closest to opening the scoring, with a corner resulting in a scramble in the box and several blocked shots, before Simons was crowded out as he attempted to turn and volley in a tight space.
It was only a minute later we did find the first goal, though, as a lightning counter-attack from an Arsenal free-kick saw Broja released just inside the Gunners’ half. The striker sprinted clear of the defence and calmly slotted the ball past the keeper in the bottom corner to give Chelsea the lead.
Broja was clearly enjoying himself and was only inches away with a curling effort from range, however he was caught offside on his next sight of goal, when Colwill stormed out of defence and carried the ball up field before lifting a deft chip over the backline for the Blues striker.
There was a nasty clash of heads between Simeu and Lawrence midway through the first half, when both defenders attempted to clear the same ball, but both were okay to continue after a brief pause for treatment and Lawrence was in the thick of things again immediately, making a vital interception to cut out a low cross with the Arsenal striker waiting to tap in at the back post. However, the resulting corner required a goal-line clearance from Simons as the heavy wind started to have an effect on set pieces.
There was little in the way of goal-mouth action for the rest of the first half as the elements increasingly made things difficult for both teams, although Bate did force a save from the keeper with a free-kick just outside the box, and Rankine had the ball in the net on the stroke of half-time, but the whistle had already been blown for an earlier offside against Broja.
Chelsea will have been happy with their first 45 minutes of the season, having dominated possession and gone into the break with the lead, while Bergstrom was largely untested.
The wind was still playing a significant role in proceedings when the second half began, making things difficult for both teams and restricting them to long-range efforts, although it did nearly give Broja another great chance when the Arsenal defence misjudged the flight of the ball, but this time he couldn’t escape their attempts to recover and get a shot away.
There was a lengthy break in play while Livramento received treatment following a late challenge out wide on the halfway line from Joel Lopez, which resulted in the Arsenal defender being shown the game’s first yellow card.
We had two promising attacks 15 minutes into the second half, firstly when Ballo used his pace to get free down the left but his cut-back from the byeline was put behind by the Arsenal defender, and then Peart-Harris couldn’t get an awkward volley on target following a corner.
The Gunners were starting to look more threatening. Warning was served when striker Alfie Mathews was played through but scuffed his shot well wide, and then Bergstrom had to make his first save of the game, holding a close-range header well at the back post.
However, before long Chelsea and Broja had a second goal. Rankine did brilliantly to beat his man on the right and rolled the ball across the six-yard line, leaving Broja a simple finish to make it two.
Arsenal responded immediately with an almost identical goal of their own through Luke Plange, setting up a nervy finish to the game as the home side piled on the pressure in the closing stages looking for an equaliser.
Bergstrom had to be alert to make a good stop down low to his right, and Arsenal wasted an excellent chance in injury time, lashing a volley wide, but it finished 2-1 to give Brand his first competitive victory in charge of the Under-18s.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Lucas Bergstrom; Henry Lawrence, Dynel Simeu, Levi Colwill; Tino Livramento (Samuel Iling Jr 69) Xavier Simons, Lewis Bate (Bashir Humphreys h-t), Dion Rankine; Myles Peart-Harris, Thierno Ballo; Armando Broja
Unused subs Jake Askew, Sam McClelland, Charlie Wiggett
Scorer Broja 14, 81
Arsenal (4-3-3) Karl Jacob-Hein; Ryan Alebiosu, Miguel Azeez, Zane Monlouis, Joel Lopez; Mathew Dennis (Nathan Butler-Dyedeji 71), Mazeed Ogungbo, Ben Cottrell; Sam Greenwood, Alfie Mathews (Luke Plange 79), Kiso Taylor-Hart
Unused subs Jason Sraha, Hubert Graczyk, Stan Flaherty
Booked Lopez 55, Azeez 72
Scorer Plange 83