YOUTH CUP: NEW CAMPAIGN, NEW PRESSURE
Tonight (Thursday) sees the youth team's quest for FA Youth Cup glory begin and, after falling disappointingly at the final hurdle in last year's competition, Adi Viveash's side will be determined to go one better and regain their crown.
The young Blues enter the competition, as usual, at the third-round stage and face a visit from non-league Dartford at Aldershot, in a game screened live on Chelsea TV. After a positive start to the league campaign that has seen the Under-18s win eight of their opening 13 games, manager Viveash will be hoping his players take that encouraging form into the knockout competition, though he admits the Youth Cup still has that additional magical ability to excite him, his staff and his players.
'It's exciting around the Academy,' he says, speaking to the official Chelsea website ahead of the game. 'The staff love the Youth Cup and the last few days in training have shown me how much the competition still means to the players. Training has been very lively and high in quality. The boys are still brought up on the traditions of the domestic cup competition and we've done extremely well in the last few years so they want to try to continue that run.'
Dartford triumphed 3-2 in an away tie at Grays Athletic to set up the showpiece trip to face Chelsea, however Viveash is adamant he will be treating the non-league side like any other opponent and maintains this stage of the competition remains the toughest.
'Dartford have done really well to get to this stage. They are an opposition we prepare for in exactly the same way as if it were Manchester United or Arsenal we were playing. We have the same level of detail on them and we had them watched in the last round.
'We know they will raise their game another 20 per cent because they're playing against Chelsea and this is their Youth Cup final but that's a good challenge for our boys and the onus is on us to dominate the game from the first minute. The third round is always the most difficult and there can always be upsets so we just have to make sure we are fully prepared and keep the focus and concentration levels high.
'When the onus is on you and you're expected to win then that's a different kind of pressure for the players. It's going to be interesting for me to see players who generally play for me on a Saturday play in a Youth Cup game. I will certainly see a different side to them but the whole point of putting them into these games is to see whether they can go to another level.'
Viveash has a wealth of options at his disposal when it comes to picking a Youth Cup side to begin the campaign, however with four games in six days across Under-21, Under-19 and Under-18 level, it has been a juggle to meet the different demands on the squad.
'I think this age group, Under-16s to Under-19s, is the strongest we've ever had,' he says. 'The team on Thursday is going to be a mixture of players that are usually with Dermot Drummy's group and players that are usually with my Under-18 training group.
'I hope it's going to be a nice mixture and hopefully we'll have a couple of schoolboys involved as well and that means there's a nice split across the programme. We've got a lot of strength in the squad. There's a lot of good players and some exceptional forward talent so certainly we hope to pose teams a lot of problems
'We have had to be a little flexible in terms of selecting the squads for these next few games. The Under-19 game on Tuesday (Dermot Drummy's side beat Steaua Bucharest 5-0 to top their UEFA Youth League group with a 100 per cent winning record) played a part in me not taking more players that were available but it was nice to have some of those players asking why they weren't going to be involved against Dartford. The UEFA Youth League has been a wonderful tournament and we're doing very well but I think that shows what the Youth Cup means to the boys.'
The team's progress to last year's final saw trips to Colchester United, Charlton, Derby County and Liverpool, before the two-legged final against Norwich, with the youth team playing in six first-team stadiums along the way. It is these opportunities that make the Youth Cup the special competition it is, believes Viveash, and he is looking forward to taking his side on a similar journey this campaign.
'I enjoyed the games last year because they were predominantly away from home and at stadium pitches. Colchester was a really tough early game but you want to see the players tested in stadium environments because that's what they're going to have to get used to.
'It's also a night game under the lights, which we don't usually play, and it's on Chelsea TV, which is great for the boys. We haven't played at Aldershot before either but it's a nice big pitch that will suit us. I'm really looking forward to watching us play and hopefully it'll be a good occasion.'
The Under-18s begin their FA Youth Cup campaign this evening at Aldershot's Electrical Services Stadium. Admission is free for all and kick-off is at 7.35pm, with the game also being screened live on Chelsea TV. Click for more details.