THE YOUNG GENERATION
Chelsea's Under-16 side triumphed at the Premier League's International Youth Tournament last month, beating Real Madrid 2-0 in the final to win the competition for the second successive year. The young Blues topped an initial group featuring Liverpool, Marseille and Stoke City, before beating West Brom 2-0 in the last four and Real by the same scoreline in the final. The venue was the University of Warwick.
However it was a rocky path to victory after an opening group stage defeat to Stoke ensured the youngsters had to fight against the odds to progress. That loss was followed by a 5-0 win over Liverpool before a decisive final group game against Marseille, in which the French side needed just a point to go through as group winners. Goals from Mukhtar Ali and Jay Da Silva, both of whom have featured for Adi Viveash's Under-18 side this term, gave the young Blues a 2-0 victory and set up a semi-final clash with West Brom.
Another 2-0 win followed, with Ali again on the scoresheet along with Tammy Abraham, setting up a showpiece final against Real Madrid, who had defeated Everton in the other semi-final 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw. An astonishing 45-yard free-kick from Ali set Chelsea on the way to victory over the Spaniards and helped the Blues claim the coveted crown for the second year in a row.
Chelsea's Under-16s coach Joe Edwards (pictured below) is understandably thrilled with his team's success, and particularly happy with the spirit of the group after such an early setback in the tournament. Speaking to the official Chelsea website, Edwards said: 'When we're bottom of the group on the first evening, having been beaten by Stoke, you hear a lot of people talking and saying "don't worry about Chelsea this year", but to think that we could have had Dominic Solanke, Ali Suljic and Issac Christe-Davies there as well, all who missed out through being on international duty, it seemed to galvanise the lads together.
'They knew that it was going to have to be a proper team effort, as opposed to last year when we won it with the likes of Jeremie Boga and Charly Musonda springing to life. It wasn't really a case of that this year, it was a real team performance.'
Solanke and Christie-Davies were playing for England Under-17s in a successful qualification tournament towards the European Championships at that level. Defender Suljic is currently with Sweden at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. He started the three group games and scored against Iraq. He has been on the bench in the knockout stages with Sweden now in the semi-finals.
Despite Chelsea Under-16s' defeat to Stoke in the opening game, Edwards was still buoyed by his side's display and confident they could go on and turn their situation around.
'We played really well and it was just a couple of errors that cost us. In that tournament environment it can be hard to get back into games but we changed the shape in that match, which was a new experience for the lads.
'We knew we had to beat Liverpool and Marseille, and score some goals as well so the turning point of the tournament and probably the highlight was beating Liverpool 5-0. It wasn't just the quality and scoring a lot but the spirit of the lads knowing they were up against it against a top side.
'We had some top individual performances in that game - Fikayo Tomori, Jay Da Silva and Mukhtar Ali, who didn't play the first game against Stoke because he had a little injury, but he came back in and got us going with a few good goals.'
The Marseille match brought a series of new challenges for the Chelsea youngsters as the French side looked to cling on to a point that would see them through to the semi-finals and the Blues knocked out. It was a set of circumstances Edwards was keen to see his players come up against and conquer.
'The way they set up to play against us was negative and they were trying gamesmanship. It was a new experience for the boys because we don't play purely for results usually. When you're trying to keep going to get the result and trying not to lose your head, that's the biggest test the boys had at the tournament, trying to keep their discipline.
'We got a penalty which Mukhtar Ali missed but the lads kept going and he made up for it with a goal. The back four - Trevor Chalobah, Jake Clarke-Salter, Fikayo Tomori and Jay Da Silva - were immense and Da Silva, who was captain, popped up with a goal in the last minute. At that point the boys were buzzing, to come back from looking like we were out to making it back into the semis.'
The last four brought the young Blues up against West Brom, who had comfortably dispatched of Manchester City 4-0 in their final group game.
'We knew it was going to be a tough game. The most pleasing thing was the core of the Under-16 boys - Kyle Scott, Ruben Sammut, Mukhtar in midfield - they kept going and going and that was really noticeable on the final day. In these sort of tournaments, where there are a lot of games in a short space of time, you normally have to rotate players but the boys didn't look like weakening at all.
'Again Mukhtar set us off, he scored a 25-yard volley which was a fantastic strike and other than some direct set-pieces West Brom didn't look like threatening. We got another one at the end with Tammy Abraham's first goal of the tournament to win it 2-0.
'We then went and watched the back-end of the other semi-final [Real Madrid-Everton] on the other pitch, which went to penalties after 2-2.Real Madrid had Zinedine Zidane's son in goal and he saved three penalties so obviously the lads have gone from being buzzing at getting through to the final to realising we're playing Real Madrid and everyone was just so excited.'
The final was graced by a fabulous free kick opener from Ali (which can be viewed below) to set the side on their way to victory, however it was the solidity at the back that pleased Edwards just as much.
'We were probably the standout team of the tournament in terms of what we did off the ball,' he said. 'It's not always the biggest factor for our schoolboy teams, who usually play nice football and score a lot of goals, but off the ball we were superb.
'The Madrid game was good, their threatening players were up the top of the pitch and they had the problem that they couldn't play out against us because of our pressing. The last three or four games of the tournament followed a similar pattern in that we were dominant off the ball, had to be patient in front of goal and then manage the game very well after getting ahead.
'We didn't really look threatened around our goal other than in the Stoke game, and to keep four clean sheets in five games is fantastic for boys at that age.
'It's a nice final stepping stone towards the Youth Cup for those boys and they were a fantastic credit to themselves. The boys from the back four and midfield were really the standouts. Jay Da Silva won an award for defender of the tournament, and if it wasn't him it would have been Tomori, they were both fantastic, and Abraham won attacker of the tournament, so it was a really pleasing couple of days all round for us.'
By Sam Poplett
- The Chelsea Under-19s are in action in the UEFA Youth League on Wednesday, taking on Schalke in the UEFA Youth League, kick-off 3pm. Entry is free.