U21 Premier League- Game 20
Arsenal 1 (Bellerin 32) Chelsea 2 (Baker 68, Swift 86)
By Jeorge Bird @ Emirates Stadium
Abou Diaby completed 45 minutes and was largely impressive in his first appearance for over a year as Arsenal U21s lost 2-1 to Chelsea this evening.
The French midfielder has been plagued by injury problems throughout his career, but, on his latest comeback, things went as well as possible, as he played some neat passes and also won a couple of duels. Diaby was replaced at the break, by which time Arsenal had taken the lead through Hector Bellerin’s impressive strike.
Arsenal were the better team in the opening period, but Chelsea took over after the break and eventually equalised through Lewis Baker before taking the lead courtesy of John Swift’s header. For all the positivity surrounding Diaby’s return, there was a caveat attached to this result as the defeat means that Arsenal can no longer finish in the top half of the U21 league table this season. More pertinently, this will deprive them of the opportunity to play the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea next season as the league splits into two divisions.
The headline team news saw Diaby make his first appearance for 402 days. Carl Jenkinson was also given a run-out, with Isaac Hayden returning from suspension and Bellerin being deployed on the right wing.
subs: Huddart, Zelalem, Ansah, Moore, Maitland-Niles
Chelsea enjoyed a lot of possession in the early stages, with winger Alex Kiwomya, who shone in the FA Youth Cup tie here last week, again influential.
Kiwomya caused numerous problems for Arsenal left-back Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill in the early stages, with the visitors looking the most likely to score the first goal.
Isaiah Brown, operating as a striker on this occasion, did well to knock the ball down into the path of Lewis Baker, who shot over. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s header then forced Matt Macey to make a good save as Chelsea continued to hold the upper hand.
Soon, however, Arsenal would assert themselves on proceedings. Diaby saw quite a lot of the ball in the first-half, with the Frenchman sending a shot straight at Mitchell Beeney, although he did display a little rustiness in bringing down Brown at the other end with a late challenge.
Diaby was wearing the number four shirt and, in appearance at least, did not look too dissimilar to Patrick Vieira, the player he was bought to replace some eight years ago. He has displayed glimpses of his quality during his time in North London, but the 27 year old will be hopeful that he can now enjoy a spell of games without sustaining any more injuries.
Baker wasted the free-kick with an effort that went well over, and Arsenal punished Chelsea with their next counter-attack. Isaac Hayden delivered a precise through-ball into the path of the on-running Bellerin and the former Barcelona youngster latched onto it and finished confidently past Beeney to open the scoring.
Bellerin, buoyed by that strike, laid the ball off to Chuba Akpom just minutes later, but the striker was fouled by Andreas Christensen. Jenkinson, rather surprisingly, took the free-kick, but the right-back’s effort was straight at Beeney.
Arsenal made a double change at the start of the second-half, with Diaby being replaced by Zak Ansah and Ainsley Maitland-Niles entering the fray in place of the injured Julio Pleguezuelo.
The alterations forced Arsenal into something of a tactical re-shuffle, with Bellerin reverting to right-back and Jenkinson moving to centre-back.
Chelsea sought to take advantage, with John Swift embarking on a mazy dribble before shooting wide. Right-back Isak Ssewankambo then weaved through the Arsenal defence and shot just off target to provide the young Gunners with a warning that their lead was not as secure as it may have seemed.
Arsenal dropped deeper and deeper as Chelsea continued to attack, and Ssewankambo again came close when he lashed an effort into the side-netting. Steve Gatting’s side, marshalled by Jenkinson, had to defend resolutely as Chelsea enjoyed possession in the pouring rain.
Kiwomya was next to try his luck as he got the better of Jon Toral before forcing a corner with a well-struck effort. Arsenal were not spent as an attacking force, however. Maitland-Niles provided a reminder of his qualities as he cut inside before delivering a precise cross that was headed wide by Akpom.
Chelsea were still largely dominant and they eventually got their reward. Ormonde-Ottewill lost possession, with substitute Islam Feruz’s cross expertly back-heeled home by Baker past a stranded Macey.
Akpom shot over in haste for Arsenal, but the young Gunners had to be alert at the other end, with Brown continuing to pose a considerable threat.
Arsenal were presented with an excellent chance to restore their lead when Toral’s precise pass unlocked the Chelsea defence and Maitland-NIles was fouled by goalkeeper Beeney, but Toral shot over from the subsequent free-kick.
Hayden then struck the crossbar as the game opened up, before Ansah dragged his shot wide from Bellerin’s cut back. It was end-to-end stuff now, with Chelsea charging forward and Brown coming close to scoring.
Chelsea were the better side in the second-half and, in truth, they deserved the lead that they took when Swift rose highest to head home Baker’s free-kick.
Macey made an excellent save to prevent further damage, with Arsenal then introducing Gedion Zelalem in place of Hayden, who had picked up a slight knock. Chelsea, though, had done enough. Diaby’s return was welcome for Arsenal, but this is a result that will have damning consequences in terms of next season’s fixtures.