Despite a gallant second-half display, Southampton Under-21s fell to a 5-3 defeat at Chelsea on Monday night.
After a disastrous first half, goals after the break from Jake Hesketh and Bevis Mugabi breathed fresh life into the contest, but ultimately it was the Blues’ rampant display in the first period that earned the points in a game which marked the long-awaited return to action of Sam Gallagher.
Featuring in his first game since picking up a knee injury towards the end of pre-season, 19-year-old Gallagher partnered the in-form Ryan Seager at the tip of Southampton’s forward line.
And it was Seager, a Premier League debutant just a day previously, who created the first opening of the game, threading a delightful pass through for Jake Sinclair to run onto. The wideman’s left-footed shot was parried by Mitchell Beeney and dropped, fortuitously for Chelsea, onto the top of the crossbar and behind for a corner.
But it didn’t take long for the hosts to seize the advantage. After Tammy Abraham flashed a cross-shot across the face of the Saints goal, Kasey Palmer went one better, arrowing his low 25-yard strike into the bottom left-hand corner of Will Britt’s goal to give the Blues a fifth-minute lead.
On 13 minutes, Adi Viveash’s side made it two. Isaiah Brown’s shot from just outside the area took a nick off Mugabi and beat Britt, leaving the visitors with a daunting-looking mountain to climb early on.
With Saints rattled, Chelsea smelled blood. Palmer blasted his second of the evening into the roof of the net after Will Wood had initially done well to recover and make a block on his own goal line. There were suggestions that Abraham had got the final touch, but in any case, the tricky winger didn’t have to wait long to register a goal of his own as Chelsea continued to dish out the punishment in the capital.
When Palmer’s pass released him, Abraham coolly dinked over Britt to make it four and effectively put the game out of the league leaders’ reach with just over two thirds of the game still to play, and matters were made worse for Martin Hunter’s outfit with 36 minutes gone, when Dominic Solanke-Mitchell flicked in the fifth following Jordan Houghton’s miscue.
Striker Seager did, however, rifle home a stunning consolation late in the first half, collecting Gallagher’s lay-off and leaving Beeney with no chance with a superbly executed finish into the top corner, but in truth it was a half almost entirely without merit for Southampton, save for Gallagher’s return and Seager’s stunner.
Hunter bolstered his engine room at the interval, replacing Gallagher with Armani Little and not only was the tide stemmed, but his team began to make a comeback.
First, substitute Josh Sims prodded Sinclair’s losted pass goalwards and Hesketh made sure on the line before defender Mugabi hooked in a Dom Gape cross just before the hour mark to give Saints more than a glimmer of hope.
Despite their late endeavours, though - including a Hesketh thunderbolt into the side netting - it was to be a fruitless trip to west London for Saints, who were knocked from their perch at the top of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League.
Chelsea Under-21s: Mitchell Beeney, Fankaty Dabo, Dion Conroy, Jake Clarke Salter, Jay Dasilva, Charlie Colkett, Tammy Abraham, Jordan Houghton (c), Dominic Solanke-Mitchell (Reece Mitchell 57), Kasey Palmer (Charly Musonda 69), Isisah Brown (Ola Aina 84).
Unused substitutes: Bradley Collins, Kevin Wright.
Goals: Palmer (5 & 19), Brown (13), Abraham (27), Solanke-Mitchell (38)
Booking: Dabo (87)
Southampton Under-21s: Will Britt, Jake Flannigan, Will Wood, Dominic Gape, Bevis Mugabi, Jason McCarthy ©, Dan Demkiv (Josh Sims 46), Jake Hesketh, Sam Gallagher (Armani Little 46), Ryan Seager, Jake Sinclair.
Unused substitutes: Josh Debayo, Harry Isted, Ollie Cook.
Goals: Seager (44), Hesketh (54), Mugabi (57)
Bookings: Sims (79), Gape (90)