Chelsea's under-21s gained their third win in three against the youngsters of Norwich City, beating the Canaries 2-0 in rather appalling conditions at Aldershot. The rain hammered down all match, leaving the grass both slick and punctuated by puddles of standing water. Unsurprisingly, that made play difficult for both sides. The turf took treachery to Ephialtian proportions, sending footballers tumbling to the pitch with alarming regularity, and even the upright were having trouble moving the ball around.
Disaster nearly struck in the very first minute. Chelsea kicked off and began the game by fizzing passes between the midfielders and defenders, but the Canaries pressed very high and the conditions were not exactly conducive towards precise control. An error seemed almost inevitable, and Adam Nditi was the man to make it. The right back attempted a backpass to Nathan Ake and instead put Jamal Loza through on goal. Thirty seconds in, it looked certain that the Blues would go 1-0 down. Instead, the striker sent the ball rolling just wide of the far post.
Happily, that moment did not cast a shadow over the rest of the first half. Chelsea regrouped and immediately went on the offensive, besieging the visitors and attempting to wear them down. Norwich, however, are a strong defensive team, and although the duo of Lewis Baker and Josh McEachran ensured that the visitors were under continuous pressure, the Canaries managed to repulse every sally forward.
They were aided in that by a touch of good fortune. A combination of Remi Matthews and the post denied Yeovil-returned Billy Clifford an opening goal after the midfielder had cut in from the left and let free a curling shot that looked fated for the back of the net, and the referee came to Norwich's rescue just before the break when Islam Feruz was brought down in the box following an excellent reverse pass by the same Clifford.
There was action at the other end of the pitch, but it was intermittent and restricted to a few goalmouth scrambles. The visitors attempted to counterattack, but they were foiled repeatedly by some superb defending. Andreas Christiansen in particular stood out for some excellent sliding tackles, but he was the headliner of a valiant group effort rather than a lone hero keeping Norwich at bay through solitary endeavour.
If that first half sounds familiar, it's because -- aside from the nigh-on biblical weather -- it matched almost perfectly these sides' encounter in last season's FA Youth Cup final. As in soggy Aldershot, the Blues dominated possession but couldn't find a way through, and their eventual loss at the hands of the Canaries in that match seemed proof enough that possession alone was unlikely to be enough to see them to victory here.
The lesson had apparently lodged in Chelsea hearts during the interval. They were far more direct after the break, with Feruz seeing a counterattacking goal ruled out and Clifford making a pair of driving runs into the penalty box. The second was rewarded with a spot kick, although there has to be sympathy for Callum McGeehan, whose claim to have won the ball fairly seemed more sound than not.
With the ball on the spot, McEachran was entirely pitiless. He sat Matthews down with a look, which gave the prone goalkeeper a prime seat to see the sweetly-struck ball fly through the sheets of driving rain and ripple the net.
The visitors engaged in a touch of retaliatory action, with Harvey Hodd finding his way into the book with a vicious challenge on the goalscorer. But if he'd hoped to put McEachran off, he achieved the opposite, and Norwich would soon be made to pay the price.
A Chelsea attack looked to have run out of steam after Feruz failed to find Clifford with a pullback, but possession was restored and McEachran, arriving late, was allowed to saunter -- he never sprints -- through a buzzing crowd of yellow-clad bodies, and then exchange a one-two with Izzy Brown. That set him up to thump a six-yard strike past a Matthews, who was once again reduced to bystandry by the young midfielder.
Norwich were forced onto the offensive, but Jamal Blackman was able to keep Loza at bay despite some scares. Now Chelsea were the counterattackers, which seemed to suit them just as well: Matthews was just as busy as Blackman despite the Canaries pushing forwards, with Clifford forcing a ludicrous save in the 79th minute with an effort from range before Brown somehow failed to score with a free header from a corner.
The visitors attempt at an attacking storm was at least partially foiled by poor finishing, but as time wore down it was increasingly obvious that even if Norwich were to pull a goal back, they were profoundly unlikely to add a second and steal the match back. Regardless, the dubious shooting of Josh Murphy and some composed play by Blackman ensured that we never got to find out what might happen if they did indeed manage to score late.
Chelsea 2, Norwich 0. And very well played all around.