Daniel Ayala made his first appearance in four months as the central defender stepped up his injury return with 60 minute for Rovers Under-23s in their 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.

Ayala hadn’t played for Rovers since limping out of the final match of 2020 at Huddersfield Town, the last of the Spaniard’s nine games since joining as a free agent.

The 30-year-old made his second outing for Billy Barr’s side, having played in a 4-0 win over Leicester City when boosting his fitness in September before making his Rovers debut the following week.

He came through an hour of the Premier League 2 fixture which was decided by a controversial George Nunn goal early in the second half, Rovers losing back-to-back games for the first time this season. 

Ayala’s outing could see him be on the bench for the final Championship game of the season against Birmingham City next Saturday, or alternatively he could feature for the Under-23s who host Chelsea in the reverse fixture the day before.



Rovers lined up in a back three, with Sam Barnes shaking off the injury that forced him to miss the defeat to Derby County, as he played on the right of the defensive line, with Daniel Ayala patrolling the central area and Louie Annesley on the left. They were ably assisted by wing backs Dan Pike and the continually impressive Lenny Cirino.

Dan Butterworth also missed out against the Rams, not risked for that fixture given his long injury absence in what was Rovers’ second game of that week, the attacker booked for a foul late in the half.

Rovers made a central defensive change at the break, but it wasn’t Ayala, as Annesley was the player to be replaced having suffered a blow to the head late in the first half, with Jalil Saadi on in his place but moved infront of the back four as Barr switched to a back four.

The scheduled substitution of Ayala came on the hour mark, Joe Nolan on in his place as Saadi dropped back in alongside Barnes.

Butterworth got through the whole game, in his fourth appearance back, with Sam Durrant on for the final 13 minutes in the place of McBride.



Chances were few and far between in the opening stages, though Jordan Eastham had to be on his guard to save well from Henry Lawrence as he cut in from the left to shoot from distance, the Rovers ‘keeper watching the ball into his gloves.

The best play was coming from Rovers, led by left wing back Cirino who has made a real impact since breaking into the side in the second half of the season.

The teenager got in down the left to square for Sam Burns, the striker taking a touch before seeing a right footed shot from 12 yards deflected towards the near post where goalkeeper Ethan Wady adjusted his body in time to palm the ball away.

Lawrence was the danger for Chelsea, a George McEachran through ball putting him down the right channel, Rovers fortunate to escape penalty appeals as he went down under what looked to be a push in the back from Barnes as he went to ground.

The end of the half belonged to Rovers though who had the better of proceedings in the opening 45 minutes.

First Cirino fed Connor McBride with a first time pass, his shot from the left edge of the box deflecting narrowly wide of the far post, as well as Pike trying to make up ground to try and tap home.

Butterworth then got in from a similar position on the right, getting beyond his marker with a neat header, but dragged his shot wide of the target in what was of the clearest opportunities of the half.

Eastham made a good save to deny Lawrence, undoubtedly the Blues’ dangerman, the wide player getting away from the attentions of Ayala to race onto a ball in behind, and then turn inside the defender, his shot across the ‘keeper turned wide by his outstretched boot.

With Thomas Tuchel in attendance, the hosts started the second half the better, and despite the best attempts of Ayala to get the ball clear, the hosts took the lead five minutes after the break. There was no shortage of controversy to it, George Nunn was clear of the last defender as a shot was sent in, but after being blocked by Ayala, the striker turned the ball home and wasn’t deemed offside as he turned the ball home.

As Ayala was replaced on the hour, by this point the hosts were fully in control, Rovers struggling to get a foothold in the game after a promising opening period.

But with their first chance of the second half, they should have levelled, substitute Joe Nolan ghosting in from deep to meet a terrific Burns cross, his contact inside the six yard box too strong as he turned over the bar. And Rovers would be aggrieved moments later with the referee’s assistant as McBride was flagged offside when crossing for Butterworth who volleyed home, a particularly tight call at best as Dujon Sterling strayed behind the rest of his defensive line.

That was part of a dominant spell for Rovers, but despite their pressing for an equaliser, they struggled to create many clear-cut opportunities.

Six minutes from time they almost grabbed what would have been a forutious leveller, an overhit Jake Garrett cross almost catching out ‘keeper Wady who backtracked quickly to tip the ball over the bar.

The last chance came in the dying seconds of normal time, Butterworth collecting a pass on the edge of the box before a snap-shot which flashed narrowly wide.



Just a second away defeat of the season saw Rovers drop to fourth in the standings.

Chelsea, last season’s PL2 winners, overtook them and Tottenham to climb to second, with Spurs beaten at leaders Manchester City but remain above Rovers with one game to go.

Rovers are guaranteed to finish in the top four, and could finish as high as second, heading into their final game against the same opposition at Leyland next Friday.