It was a day of drama for our Under-19s as they fought back from 2-0 down with 13 minutes remaining before finishing flawlessly in the penalty shoot-out to book a place in the UEFA Youth League semi-finals.
A brace from Antonio Marin looked set to send Joe Edwards’s side out of the competition but Luke McCormick came to our rescue, first with a low finish into the bottom corner and then with a header that restored parity against Dinamo Zagreb. The nerves of a shoot-out were barely evident as the hosts stepped up to convert in increasingly extravagant fashion, with Conor Gallagher finding the back of the net with a panenka and then Marc Guehi beating the goalkeeper with an effort that didn't even require a run-up.
A 4-2 lead gave Karlo Ziger the chance to turn hero and our Croatian keeper spurned his countrymen with two terrific saves. The victory means our youngsters will return to Switzerland at the end of the month, where a rematch of last season’s final against Barcelona awaits.
Daishawn Redan in for George McEachran was the only change made by Edwards from the last-16 win over Montpellier as he looked to guide his side into the semi-finals for the second year running. It was a switch that brought a tactical adjustment as the Blues lined up in a 3-5-2 shape, with Redan leading the line alongside Charlie Brown.
Ziger retained his place in goal against his compatriots in the continued injury absence of Jamie Cumming, while Joseph Colley, Guehi and Ian Maatsen lined up across the back three once again.
In midfield, Billy Gilmour, Gallagher and McCormick formed the central triumvirate, the latter most advanced following his winning goal in the last round. Meanwhile, Tariq Lamptey and Juan Castillo returned in the wing-back roles designed to provide crucial width against a side expected to sit deep and play on the counter-attack.
Dinamo were looking to claim another English scalp after knocking out Liverpool last month to secure a place in their first Youth League quarter-final and the Croatians were able to settle quickly on a fresh spring afternoon in Cobham. They took the early sting out of the contest as both sides struggled to fashion openings throughout the first 20 minutes, with the hosts foiled by a deep-lying defence and an inconsistent final ball.
Castillo wasted our first corner of the game with an over-hit delivery from the right, while Brown’s searching pass for strike partner Redan was similarly lacking in accuracy. Lamptey’s advances from the right proved a frequent source of danger, though Filip Antovski marshalled the wing-back well whenever he looked to motor a way through to goal.
The Blues had the ball in the net after 23 minutes when Guehi and Brown managed to bundle a high delivery over the line, though the Romanian officials ruled the former had impeded goalkeeper Dinko Horkas and awarded a Dinamo free-kick instead.
Dinamo’s game plan was working nicely as they sat in an organised shape out of possession before springing forward on the break. Striker Leon Sipos, their leading Youth League scorer this season with four goals, teed up a shooting opportunity for Edin Julardzija at the end of one such counter-attack. It was a neat cutback into the path of the midfielder but his fierce strike was charged down and deflected behind.
Marin then spurned a glorious chance running in from the left wing, neither finding the bottom corner nor supporting options in the box as he placed the ball across goal and wide of the far post. The warning signs went unheeded. Marijo Cuze ought to have tested Ziger after capitalising on a misjudgement from Maatsen but delayed his shot and was eventually thwarted by the recovering Castillo.
Dinamo’s breakthrough goal finally arrived with four minutes of the first half remaining. Tin Hrvoj floated in a cross from the right and Marin took the ball under control smartly before squeezing a finish underneath Ziger and over the line for the opener.
It was perhaps a deserved lead for the visitors and required a measured response from Edwards’s side. Gallagher was closest to levelling before the break, jinking away from two defenders and into the box, though his left-foot shot was pushed behind by the alert goalkeeper.
The Blues returned with a new shape as Edwards shifted to 4-2-3-1, with Lamptey dropped to full-back and Castillo pushed further forward. However, our task became decidedly more difficult 12 minutes after the restart as Marin struck again to fire Dinamo into a two-goal lead. A neat move created the chance for the wideman and his finish was clinical once more, fired through a crowded box and beyond Ziger’s despairing dive.
Trailing by two goals for the first time since last year’s final, this was a test of character as well as ability. Somewhat predictably, the balance of the game shifted and Dinamo dropped deeper into their own half, although the hosts continued to struggle in severely testing Horkas.
McEachran’s set-piece deliveries proved useful after his introduction and one inswinging corner found Guehi at the back post, though his England Under-19 teammate’s header clipped the outside of the woodwork.
Yet it was a moment that seemed to galvanise belief in last term’s runners-up, who still had 20 minutes to find a route back into the game. McEachran fired over as chances started to fall more freely and it was McCormick who came to his side’s rescue with his sixth goal of the season. Lamptey’s endeavours earned a free-kick on the edge of the box and McCormick latched on to it to drill the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards out, although Horkas will feel he should have done better to keep it out.
Renewed energy swept through the team as Chelsea sensed a chance to keep their Youth League journey alive. Gallagher fired across the face of goal and then found Castillo with a deep inswinging cross that the Dutchman diverted narrowly over the angle of bar and post.
With the clock ticking, our attacking output turned increasingly desperate. It looked like McCormick had missed his final chance to level, miscuing a header from a right-sided corner, though the 20-year-old made amends with an 87th-minute header to level the scores. Gallagher turned provider once again, fizzing in a dangerous cross, and McCormick’s header looped over the goalkeeper into the back of the net.
Late drama looked sure to take the quarter-final to penalties but there was still time remaining for Dinamo to fashion one last chance. Marijo Cuze accelerated into space and fired left-footed towards goal but his effort was skewed off-target, forcing the tie to a shoot-out.
The Blues finished flawlessly from 12 yards with McCormick finding the bottom corner and Gallagher dinking down the middle with a perfectly executed panenka before Guehi stole the limelight with an unbelievable effort that required only a half-yard run-up. Colley then matched the clinicalness of his centre-back colleague before Ziger turned hero, saving from Roko Baturina to send Edwards’s boys back to Nyon for the UEFA Youth League finals weekend.
Chelsea (3-5-2) Karlo Ziger; Joseph Colley, Marc Guehi, Ian Maatsen; Tariq Lamptey, Billy Gilmour, Luke McCormick, Conor Gallagher, Juan Castillo; Daishawn Redan, Charlie Brown (George McEachran 58)
Unused subs Nicolas Tie, Clinton Mola, Marcel Lavinier, George Nunn, Henry Lawrence, Marcel Lewis
Scorer McCormick 77, 87
Booked Lamptey, Maatsen
Dinamo Zagreb (4-2-3-1) Dinko Horkas (c); Tin Hrvoj, Josip Sutalo, Josko Gvardiol, Filip Antovski (Vedad Radonja 37); Bartol Franjic, Marko Gjira (Luka Pavlak 84); Marijo Cuze, Edin Julardzija (Omar Kocar 79), Antonio Marin; Leon Sipos (Roko Baturina 79)
Unused subs Renato Josipovic, Dominik Resetar, Dino Kapitanovic
Scorer Marin 41, 57
Booked Julardzija, Gijra
Referee Radu Petrescu (ROU)
-Additional pictures courtesy of Mark Sandom