The first tangible effects of Thibaut Courtois' meniscus injury were felt tonight, in the Premier League International Cup match between Chelsea U21 and Liverpool U21. It didn't help that two of the next six goalkeepers on the depth chart were out of commission as well.
- Thibaut Courtois, 23 -- injured
- Asmir Begovic, 28 -- set to start tomorrow
- Jamal Blackman, 21 -- in first-team, set to be backup tomorrow
- Mitchell Beeney, 19 -- U21 first-choice, injured
- Brad Collins, 18 -- U19 first-choice, up with first-team, set to be third goalkeeper tomorrow
- Nathan Baxter, 16 -- U18 first-choice, set to start tomorrow for U18s
- Jared Thompson, 16 -- U18 backup, injured
And so, in goal tonight was someone called James Russell. Wait, who?
A decade ago, Russell was part of the Chelsea academy, before ending up in non-league football. He has since also become a part-time goalkeeper coach at the academy, and even made a few appearances for our Reserves team in 2011-12. The rest of the time, he's been a player-coach at non-league Boreham Wood who currently ply their trade in the 5th tier, in the Vanarama National League (i.e. The Conference, as it used to be known not so long ago). I don't really know how he's able to and allowed to do all this at the same time, but apparently it works.
So, Chelsea U21s took the pitch with a 27-year-old part-time coach and semi-pro in goal for our first match in the second season of the Premier League International Cup. You may remember there being a bit of controversy about this competition last season, and as far as I'm aware, it's still not a sanctioned competition by UEFA, who'd prefer that attention isn't taken away from the UEFA Youth League, even though that's just a U19 competition, while this one is U21.
In any case, the format is the same as last year, four groups of four determine the eight teams who advance to the single-elimination knockout rounds (which is where Chelsea lost 4-3 last season to Fulham). This year, the Blues have been drawn into Group A alongside Liverpool, Celtic, and Benfica. Six other English teams (Leicester, Norwich, Man City, Sunderland, Spurs, Everton) are joined by six European teams (Porto, Villareal, Athletic Bilbao, Schalke, Gladbach, PSV) in the other three groups.
#CFCU21 go Russell, Dabo, Aina, Conroy, Wright, Ali, Swift, Mitchell, Palmer, Musonda, Kiwomya.
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) September 11, 2015
Last year, we used this competition to give minutes to players who weren't necessarily considered starters at the U21 level, but with a smaller squad at our disposal currently, there were plenty of the usual talent on display. Charly Musonda captained the side from midfield, and there were starts for the likes of Ola Aina and John Swift, too. It was the latter who opened the scoring just six minutes in. And what a goal it was!
Chelsea couldn't build on the bright start, and by the half, Liverpool were in front 2-1, thanks to a brace from their youngest-ever debutant at senior level, the then 16-year-old Jerome Sinclair. Now just a week shy of his 19th birthday, Sinclair was causing trouble all half long, first taking advantage of an error from Aina to score the equalizer, then giving the visitors the lead with his head from a nice cross.
Whatever stand-in head coach Andy Myers said at the half worked a treat -- our former left back and assistant U21 coach was placed in charge for this competition by Adi Viveash -- as within five minutes of the restart we were level, within fifteen we were ahead (assist by Swift), and within twenty, we were out of sight, all three goals coming from Kasey Palmer. By the time his third, a deflected free kick, went in, Chelsea were dominant and were unlucky not to add a few more goals to the tally before the full-time whistle. Tammy Abraham came on as a sub and, as a sign of a sure and impending apocalypse, failed to score for once, and there was even time for a first ever competitive Chelsea youth appearance for 18-year-old Josimar Quintero, who traded La Masia for Cobham a couple years ago.
Well done everyone!