Not too many happy hugs tonight...
Sometimes things don't quite according to plan. For the Chelsea U21 team, this was one of those nights. Unless of course the plan was to lose at home to Liverpool U21 by a somewhat harsh 4-1 scoreline. Which would've been a pretty silly plan.
Then again, it was a bit of an odd plan to begin with. U21 stalwart Lucas Piazon was nowhere to be seen, presumably involved with the first team for tomorrow's action at Loftus Road. Marko Marin was handed a start as part of his injury rehab, featuring as the first ever overage player for the nascent Chelsea U21 team in this new EPPP era. Islam Feruz came out of hiding as well and slotted into an unfamiliar wide right position, as Billy Clifford looked to continue his hot start to the season in the #10 role. 16-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek was tasked with controlling the midfield alongside George Saville, while the familiar back four of Deen-Conteh - Ake - Davey - Kane took their places ahead of Jamal Blackman's garish hair cut. Patrick Bamford, ostensibly the fourth choice center forward on the team, spearheaded the now standard 4-2-3-1 formation.
Liverpool replied with a similar shape in the dimly lit conditions at Brentford's Griffin Park.
Regular watchers of the Chelsea youth side, who have grown accustomed to the general dominance that Dermot Drummy's team tend to exert over the opposition, were in for a rude first half. While possession may have officially been fairly even, Chelsea hardly threatened and only through some amazingly wasteful finishing by center forward Samed Yesil did the two sides remain scoreless.
Chelsea's inability to calmly pass out from the back and their propensity for cheap giveaways in the center of midfield put the home side repeatedly under pressure. Young Spanish attacker Daniel Pacheco was having the time of his life down the left wing, repeatedly leaving Todd Kane and Alex Davey in his dust. Yesil missed two if not three gilt-edged opportunities, and those were in addition to all the goal-line clearances and half-chances that Nathan Ake was mopping up. At least the Rudd Gullit lookalike was in imperious form.
Up front, the men in Blue weren't faring much better. Billy Clifford took quite some time to get going and even when he did, his contributions died by the heavy first touches of Marko Marin and Patrick Bamford. While the latter would redeem himself in the second half with a wonderful effort reminiscent of a certain Ivorian center forward/legend, Marin looked every inch the man who had been sidelined by injury. Slow feet, uninspiring link-up play, and general sluggishness characterized his 45 minutes of planned rehab action.
Despite the team's struggles, half-time arrived at 0-0. Just before the whistle blew though, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was forced off through a head injury (clashed with Liverpool's Jack Robinson on a header) and he was replaced by 15-year-old Jeremie Boga. The supremely talented Frenchman - well, boy - almost scored with his second touch, but his contributions went downhill from there. Adam Coombes, Marin's half-time replacement, suffered a similar fate. His introduction signaled a 10-15 minute period where Chelsea looked the brightest, but things quickly deteriorated after that.
Clifford, Feruz, Bamford, and Coombes, with a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque free kick, all had decent looks at Liverpool's goal, but Peter Gulacsi was equal to their efforts. And just when it looked like Chelsea's somewhat cobbled-together lineup - at this point, the team had three nominal center forwards, two attacking midfielders, and just one holding midfielder - would find a breakthrough, Liverpool struck twice in the matter of seconds.
The first came from a weak far post header by Jack Robinson that somehow squirmed its way past Blackman, the second from a cheap penalty conceded by Aziz Deen-Conteh. Conor Coady made no mistake.
To their credit, the Baby Blues did not give up and forced their way back into the match with a wonderfully taken goal by Patrick Bamford. Created from almost nothing, the young center forward did all the work by himself: his first touch to control the pass was excellent, his turn to lose both of his markers was excellent, and his calm, low finish into the far corner was excellent as well. A truly excellent goal then for young Patrick and a true moment of class in an otherwise dour Chelsea performance.
As the home side pressed forward to find an equalizer, Liverpool broke well to score twice more. Yesil's replacement Michael Ngoo may have been the size of skyscraper, but his footwork and finishing were great. He got Liverpool's fourth (and a yellow card for displaying a t-shirt with "96 Reasons 4 Justice" message on it), while talented Hungarian Krisztian Adorjan's wonderful finish found the bottom corner of Blackman's net for Liverpool's third.
The final scoreline may have been harsh on Chelsea, but the team in red looked the better side for most of the 90 minutes. Chelsea's usual stars were either missing or marginalized: Islam Feruz was wasted on the right (although should be commended for the job he did tracking back for the whole match), while Clifford was not as prominent in a deeper role. Todd Kane spent most of the match worrying about Pacheco (more successfully in the second half) rather than about running forward. He was not helped at all by Alex Davey. And although Nathan Ake did his best to make up for everyone else's shortcomings, it was not the best showing by the defense or by the team, in general, for that matter.