Our Under-19s found a way to fight through French resistance in the UEFA Youth League and book their place in the quarter-finals.
Montpellier presented a stern test for last season’s finalists and it took over three-quarters of the contest for Joe Edwards’s side to conjure the breakthrough. Juan Castillo broke the deadlock with a finish on the rebound after a shot from Luke McCormick had been spilled, though our lead lasted less than 10 minutes before a free-kick floated all the way through the 18-yard box and into the back of the net.
With penalties looming, McCormick took centre stage to grab a late winner, volleying in a brilliant left-footed effort (pictured top) and setting up a last-eight home tie against Dinamo Zagreb at the start of April.
Edwards made two changes from our play-off round win over Monaco as Karlo Ziger and McCormick came into the team, the latter replacing Jamie Cumming as one of our three allocated ‘over-age’ players in the match day squad and making his first appearance in the competition this term.
It was a slight tweak in system as the Blues lined up in a 3-4-2-1 shape with McCormick and George McEachran supporting Charlie Brown in attack. Ziger started between the sticks behind a back three of Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi and Ian Maatsen, while Tariq Lamptey and Castillo continued as the preferred options at wing-back. In central midfield, Conor Gallagher partnered Billy Gilmour.
Both sides had progressed through the domestic champions pathway, with Montpellier having beaten the 2017 runners-up Benfica in their last outing, so a competitive contest was expected at Cobham. The opening exchanges were cagey and nervy, restricting the game’s flow and any build-up play was quickly broken down.
Ziger claimed a couple of high balls sent into the box early on but it took 10 minutes before the Croatian had a noteworthy save to make as Bastian Badu raced down the right. The wideman showed plenty of acceleration to make ground but Maatsen, who signed his first professional contract at the club this week, tracked him all the way and did enough to force a weak shot from the French forward.
The best Chelsea chance of the opening half an hour fell to the competition’s leading goalscorer. A short corner routine saw Gilmour deliver a deep cross to the back post and Brown found himself in space and on the end of it, though the striker’s header was just the wrong side of the near post.
That was a let-off for the visitors, though they had provided plenty of indication they would prove more than a match for the two-time winners. Badu provided the output again through the inside-right channel, setting the ball back for full-back Thibault Vargas to deliver, though Guehi marshalled the box well to head clear.
Ziger had produced a string of impressive saves on his development squad debut last week and the 17-year-old was soon at it again to keep the scores level, producing a stop that outshone any of his efforts at Aldershot five days previously.
A left-sided attack fashioned an opportunity in the air for the bright Badu and his header looked destined for the top corner but for the flailing hand of our Croatian keeper. As the ball dropped down into the goalmouth, Jean Vercruysse thought he had the simple task of heading in the rebound from two yards out until Guehi’s important intervention.
After a slow start, the tie was finally alive with chances and action. Montpellier were strong in the tackle and conceded several free-kicks as a result, causing frustration on the touchline from their coaching staff and a calming word of warning to the dugout from the Estonian referee.
The Frenchmen had more pressing concerns moments later as McEachran and McCormick combined to promising effect, the latter receiving a perfect forward pass from the England Under-17 World Cup winner that momentarily set him running clear at goal. As the opportunity to test Amine Ichalalen in the visiting goal opened up though, McCormick stumbled with the ball under his feet and the chance was quickly snuffed out.
As the half-time whistle sounded at an increasingly chilly Cobham, there was still nothing to separate the two teams but the restart was brighter for the Blues. Colley curled an effort off-target from just outside the box before Gallagher got on the end of a long diagonal and flicked the ball over the onrushing Ichalalen but was forced wide.
La Paillade soon settled once again and grew into their best spell of the game. Badu continued to benefit from the bulk of their chances created, heading just over the crossbar from a teasing free-kick before firing low from the edge of the box and forcing Ziger to claim the ball down low at his near post.
Down the other end, Lamptey’s endeavour on the right flank briefly opened the door for the hosts. Castillo sent the wing-back racing away on the touchline and his cross found Brown in the centre, albeit just behind the centre-forward who had to adjust quickly. He showed good agility to make connection with a scorpion-type effort on the volley but Ichalalen made the stop to keep it out.
Edwards made his first change with a quarter of the contest remaining, swapping strikers and introducing Daishawn Redan up top. The manager had tweaked shape and deployed Castillo on the right moments earlier and that tinkering soon paid off with the opening goal of the game.
McCormick had almost provided the finish at the back post after Castillo’s dangerously inswinging cross but couldn’t make contact to divert the ball between the posts. However, the midfielder played his part in breaking the deadlock with 72 minutes on the clock, bursting forward through the middle and angling a low shot across goal. Ichalalen got across to reach the effort but his parry was weak and Castillo arrived on cue to fire in the rebound.
Delight sparked by the Dutchman’s first goal since November quickly turned to despair when the visitors restored parity within six minutes. The concession of a soft free-kick gave Montpellier the chance to swing the ball into the box and Amir Adouyev’s inswinging delivery floated all the way through into the far corner, helped along the way by the slightest of touches from defender Benchama.
The prospect of the tie heading straight to a penalty shootout without the safety net of extra-time meant Edwards’s boys had 10 minutes to find a winner. Gallagher broke forward and launched in a high cross that fell perfectly for McCormick, in space and primed to take aim. The captain watched the ball drop before connecting sweetly with a left-footed volley that flew across goal and into the far corner.
As we defended deeper and deeper in the final moments, there was time left for one last Montpellier opportunity when Clement Vidal had a header right in front of goal, though the centre-back missed the target by a few yards and the likelihood of a second comeback disappeared.
Dinamo Zagreb now await in the quarter-finals, which will be played in the first week of April at Cobham, as our youngsters continue their European journey and head closer to a return to Switzerland for the finals weekend.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Karlo Ziger; Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi, Ian Maatsen; Tariq Lamptey, Billy Gilmour, Conor Gallagher, Juan Castillo; Luke McCormick (c), George McEachran (Clinton Mola 89); Charlie Brown (Daishawn Redan 67)
Unused subs Nicolas Tie, Henry Lawrence, Marcel Lavinier, George Nunn
Scorers Castillo 72; McCormick 82
Booked Gallagher, Gilmour, Ziger, Guehi
Montpellier (4-2-3-1) Amine Ichalalen; Thibault Vargas, Clement Vidal (c), Samy Benchama, Thibault Tamas; Romain Caumet, Joris Chotard (Darik Ghilas 87); Bastian Badu (Chris Kasongo 71), Amir Adouyev, Thomas Robert; Jean Vercruysse (Sepe Elye Wahi 83)
Unused subs Vincenzo Cozzella, Hugo Morales, Lenny Cidolit, Ryan Boudersa
Scorer Benchama 78
Booked Tamas, Vargas, Vidal
Referee Kristo Tohver (EST)
-Additional pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom