Checkatrade Trophy preview: Freedom and fight

It’s semi-final night in the Checkatrade Trophy as our development squad take on League Two Lincoln City for a place in the Wembley final.

Joe Edwards’s side are the only ‘Under-21’ team left in the competition having advanced from the group stage before knocking out a trio of League One sides; MK Dons, Portsmouth and Oxford United. Their next challenge is a trip to Sincil Bank, the first Chelsea team to play at the old ground for 107 years, where they will face Danny Cowley’s Imps.

Lincoln are currently ninth in League Two and caught national interest last term as they were crowned National League champions and had a memorable run in the FA Cup to the quarter-finals, beating Championship sides Ipswich Town and Brighton, as well as Premier League Burnley.

Edwards is well aware of the difficulties that lie ahead for his young side in the East Midlands tonight but believes they have had the perfect preparation after two tough tests in Premier League 2 last week. Both Everton and Leicester City have similar traits to Lincoln and, while the Blues left Merseyside on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline, they were much-improved in victory over the Foxes at Aldershot.

‘We were disappointed with the two goals we conceded at Everton and it was a bit of a wake-up call so we did a lot of work last week on that side of the game,’ Edwards tells the official Chelsea website as we look ahead to the semi-final. ‘Leicester was almost the perfect preparation for going to Lincoln because of how similar they play so it was a nice confidence boost for the lads to get a clean sheet in a 1-0 win. 

HIGHLIGHTS: Leicester PL2 (H) 17/18

‘We did ride our luck at times but when you get bodies in there and you’re willing to put them on the line, sometimes you get the luck you deserve. We were quite poor in terms of the rest of our play and got dominated territorially in the first half but to come through that to win the game with a clean sheet gives us real belief.’

Our youngsters have stayed true to their footballing beliefs throughout this run to the last-four stage, eager to get the ball down and cause problems with their technique and skill. However, they have also had to earn the right to play and show their battling qualities for long periods in games.

‘There are different ways of playing football and we’re certainly not turning our noses up at the way some of the Football League teams play,’ continues Edwards. ‘They play to their strengths; if you look at the guys Lincoln have up the top end of the pitch, they’re big powerful players so they try to get the ball up forward to them as quickly as possible.

‘That’s not our strength and doesn’t really go in keeping with the philosophy the boys are taught in our Academy throughout the younger age groups. If you look at our team, we have technical players and it suits them to get the ball down and play. That’s how we’ve hurt our opponents in this competition but firstly we have to match them on the other side of the game.’

While our Academy has enjoyed an unprecedented period of silverware success and now starts to see graduates thriving on the senior stage, a run to the latter stages of the Football League competition represents new territory. This is only the second season in which development teams have been invited to join the League One and League Two sides in a reworked competition, with Swansea City’s run to last year’s quarter-finals the previous best showing by an Under-21 team.

‘There’s definitely a feeling from our end that we have something to prove in this competition, even if there isn’t as much pressure on us as in the FA Youth Cup or other competitions,’ Edwards notes. ‘A lot of the other academy teams went out early so we haven’t had that expectation on us to go all the way and win it, which has given the boys a bit of freedom to go out and play.

‘Our players are used to being involved in semi-finals and finals but this is probably the biggest challenge they’ve faced with it being against senior professionals and also with the big incentive being a final at Wembley. For us to get to the final alone would be an outstanding achievement and an amazing experience to look forward to because we know there are players out there who’ve had full careers but haven’t experienced that.’

A feature of the campaign has been Edwards’s ability to call on the services of the young players who comprise part of Antonio Conte’s first team squad, such as Ethan Ampadu, Dujon Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi, all three of whom are in line for involvement against Lincoln. However, managing players between training groups has required close communication and precise planning.

"This will be another level up because even the environment will change. We just have to do our best, hope we can dig in and fight, then find the composure to bring our style to the table as well."

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‘It’s been a big challenge,’ admits the manager. ‘My previous experience of working in the Youth Cup was we would have the squad together for three days beforehand preparing for the game, but this season it’s been more common that the boys who play for us pretty much just turn up on the day.

‘When we played Portsmouth away at Fratton Park, Ampadu and Charly Musonda had already trained with the first team that morning so it’s a great credit to them that they can physically and mentally get themselves ready to step into the team and perform as well as they have.

‘It’s not ideal preparation but those players being with the first team is what we’re all here for and that experience adds to them, which adds to us. We’re here to develop but we’re also here to support the first team and the fact we’ve got young academy players making up part of that squad every day in training and being on the bench is what we all want.’

The immediate attention returns back to Lincoln and the task of Edwards, his staff and players to create their own small piece of history in booking an April trip to the national stadium. Lincoln themselves have never been to Wembley in their 133-year history so the determination to win will be high on both sides of the field.

‘This will be another level up because even the environment will change. We’ve played on some nice pitches in this competition but we’ve seen Lincoln’s pitch and it looks like it will be a difficult one. It will also be by far the biggest crowd we’ve had. Watching their last game in the competition against Peterborough, you could feel the impact of the crowd that night so they’ll be right behind them and right on us.

‘When those tough moments in the game come, that effect is going to make them feel even tougher and that’s a brand new experience for some of the boys. We just have to do our best, hope we can dig in and fight, then find the composure to bring our style to the table as well.’

Kick-off at Sincil Bank is 7.45pm this evening (Tuesday) and supporters wishing to attend can purchase tickets at the ticket office on the day of the game, priced at £10 for adults, £5 for concessions (over-60s, students or disabled) and £2 for under-18s. Away fans will be housed in the Lincoln University Stand, and then the Bridge McFarland Stand if more are required.

The game will be screened live on Sky Sports Football and a full 90-minute re-run will follow on Chelsea TV tomorrow at 1pm. There will also be updates throughout the evening on our official @chelseafc Twitter.