Chelsea Under-19s continued their European adventure and booked themselves a place in the UEFA Youth League quarter-finals following a hard-fought win over Montpellier at Cobham on Wednesday.
Juan Castillo and Luke McCormick got the goals either side of an equaliser from the visitors to send Joe Edwards’s side into the last eight and set up another home tie against Dinamo Zagreb. However, it wasn’t pretty for long periods as the French side made life difficult and forced mistakes from the Blues, leaving Edwards reflecting on a pleasing win with room for improvement.
‘It was a difficult game,’ said the manager after the game. ‘We knew the weather conditions would play a part, even for teams that try to get the ball down, and Montpellier seemed to play on that a bit. They were very direct and strong physically, never turning down the opportunity to play forward balls into their powerful boys up front.
‘The game was quite cagey and scrappy. I felt we were inconsistent with our quality and got drawn into that at times so it always felt like an edgy game because even though they weren’t causing us too many problems, they always had a threat.
‘We got our breakthrough goal through Juan but then conceded a poor goal from a free-kick and that lifted them massively. There was a big celebration from their players, fans and staff which could easily have rattled us but our response to come back and win the game was a massive positive.’
With only three ‘over-age’ players permitted in each match day squad, Edwards and his staff had a tough call to make on who to include and who to leave out, though the inclusion of McCormick was clearly vindicated after the midfielder’s shot was turned in by Castillo for our opener and his late volley won the game.
‘It was an incredibly difficult decision for us because Jamie [Cumming, who missed out] certainly hasn’t deserved to be dropped for his performances this season,' continued Edwards. 'The rules are different this year in making certain players over-age even though they’re still under-19 and the boys who fall into that category for us are key players.
‘However, Luke’s performance against Man City last week showed exactly what we’ve missed with him being injured for such a long time. He’s a very mature, senior figure within our group and his goal threat speaks for itself because he made one and scored one tonight. I was right behind his finish and the execution was fantastic.’
McCormick acknowledged it was not one of the team’s better performances but claimed the key was to progress in the competition and continue the quest to avenge last season’s defeat in the final at the hands of Barcelona. With the draw already mapped out, the Blues will face the Catalans in the semi-final in Switzerland if both sides progress. Barcelona host Lyon in their quarter-final tie.
‘It’s a brilliant result for us,’ said McCormick. ‘We’re the only English team to progress to the quarter-finals so we’re really pleased with that but we know we can play a lot better, especially at home.
‘Our quality on the ball at times was a bit sloppy but the result was the main thing and we’ll definitely be trying to put more of our imprint on the game in the next round. To contribute to both goals is great for me. I’ve been our injured for such a long time and that’s probably my first 90 minutes for eight or nine months so it’s just good for me to be back out on the pitch.
'I played a massive part last year in us reaching the final but that game against Barcelona still gives me nightmares – to get back to Nyon and put it right this year would mean the world to me.’
— Luke McCormick
Edwards cautioned a step-by-step approach to returning to the showpiece continental final, warning there were still significant challenges ahead.
‘There are still some great teams left in the competition like Real Madrid and Barcelona – they’re the games you want to be playing in. We’ve been to Nyon several times now as an Academy and last year obviously ended in disappointment so there are several players in our dressing room desperate to get back there and put it right. We know we have to do that game by game and fortunately we’ve done enough in this game to get through to the next round.’
-Chelsea versus Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Youth League quarter-finals will take place at Cobham on Wednesday 3 April, kick-off 3pm. The game will be shown live on BT Sport.