Ruben Loftus-Cheek curls in Chelsea’s third goal in their win against Brighton. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Nights like these must leave those associated with Chelsea’s academy purring. The sight of Callum Hudson-Odoi tormenting his markers on a first top-flight start, or Ruben Loftus-Cheek conjuring a goal of such majesty to smooth comfortable victory, surely make it all worthwhile. “We’ve worked all our lives for this chance, years of hard work, and now we start in a Premier League game together,” Loftus-Cheek said, his younger teammate at his side. “That’s so good for the academy.”
Throw in Andreas Christensen, schooled at Brondby but with Chelsea from the age of 15, helping to snuff out Brighton’s rare glimpses of reward and this club could bask in some homegrown cheer. Maurizio Sarri’s apparent reluctance to blood such youthful talent from the start of games this season has contributed to the sense of exasperation undermining his tenure. Yet he finally deemed the time right and the majority could revel in the injection of wide-eyed enthusiasm, pace, strength and no little quality to ensure there was no repeat of the rancour which rained down at Cardiff at the weekend.
This was no PR exercise for Sarri. He had viewed Brighton’s propensity to defend deep and narrow as an opportunity for Hudson-Odoi to isolate a full-back, while Loftus-Cheek is now recovered from the back problems which have frustrated his progress, even if he did depart early with a twinge of a hamstring.
The selections clearly raised the collective mood, but they also served to remind that these bright young things are more than ready to energise this team. It ended as Chelsea’s most convincing league performance for a month, albeit against opponents apparently torn between the lingering threat of relegation and thoughts of the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday.
The visitors were horribly tentative in their attacking approach throughout, their initial defensive discipline eventually eroded and no hint of a revival forthcoming thereafter. Hudson-Odoi had been carried here on his form from Montenegro and that impressive first start for his country, and duly tormented Gaëtan Bong and Solly March.
When the latter retired with a tight calf, which will require treatment before Wembley, the teenager tore eagerly into his replacement, Anthony Knockaert, with all the free-spirited energy and incision this team have lacked too often of late. It was his dart beyond the Frenchman seven minutes from the break, and low centre towards the near post, which Olivier Giroud converted with glee.
All of Chelsea’s best opportunities up to then had come from the teenager’s runs down the right, whether Giroud was being denied by Shane Duffy’s point-blank block or forcing the Irishman to slice just wide of his own post. “We bounced back well,” said Hudson-Odoi, as if Chelsea had succumbed in Cardiff rather than prevailed so late. “The manager told me to go and express myself.”
That he did to startling effect, even putting in a shift defensively to help thwart Brighton on the counterattack, for all that Sarri ended up pulling his leg in the dressing-room about an air-kick at the far post when the teenager had spied a goal of his own.
“I told him that he missed a very easy goal in the first half,” the head coach said through a chuckle. “He smiled, he’s a good boy, but has to stay with his feet on the floor. Now he can risk stopping to improve, thinking that he is a player at 100%, but that’s not true. It’s impossible to be at the top when you are 18. He needs to improve, he can improve, and I want him to improve. He can become one of the best players in Europe.”
He is working with one of the best in the world at present. It would have been tempting to decree this a glimpse of Chelsea’s future had Eden Hazard, a player whose desire to move to Real Madrid is an open secret, not supplied the second with a burst of pace to the edge of the area, a swerve away from Lewis Dunk and a whipped finish into the far corner. Not to be outdone, Loftus-Cheek picked up possession three minutes later and opened up his right foot – shades of Dennis Bergkamp at Roker Park 22 years ago, albeit from further out – to place a shot into the far top corner with Mat Ryan utterly helpless.
They were flashes of brilliance to warm Stamford Bridge’s lowest league crowd of the season, a rearranged midweek fixture probably as much to blame as recent disaffection with the management. Those present had spied reasons for optimism. For Brighton, still not safe, this was one to forget before an occasion to be savoured at Wembley.