It was far from a vintage performance from our Under-19s on the European stage but they demonstrated character and courage to fight back from 2-0 down to triumph after a remarkable penalty shoot-out and book a return to Switzerland for the UEFA Youth League semi-finals.
A goal either side of half-time from Antonio Marin put Dinamo Zagreb in control of the quarter-final and it looked unlikely that the Blues would recover. However, a late brace from skipper Luke McCormick inspired Joe Edwards’s side and restored parity with the Croatians, sending the tie to penalties.
The hosts were flawless from 12 yards and found the back of the net in increasingly extravagant fashion, most notably through Marc Guehi’s eye-catching effort that required no run-up and took everyone by complete surprise. Karlo Ziger also played his part with two impressive saves against his compatriots to set up a last-four meeting with Barcelona, a rematch of last season’s final.
After the game, Edwards reflected on contrasting emotions as he praised the spirit of his side but confessed his frustrations at a below-par display.
‘We’re absolutely delighted to be going back to Nyon to play in another semi-final and a game of the stature of Chelsea against Barcelona,’ he told the official Chelsea website.
‘It’s something for everyone to look forward to. However, I think when the dust settles there will be mixed emotions because we want to play well and our players want to show everyone how they’re developing but we really didn’t perform well at all in the game.
‘We knew exactly what to expect from Zagreb so nothing they came with was a surprise to us. We actually started the game pretty well but then we got very frustrated at not being able to create clear chances and we looked a bit nervy in the middle section of the game, which was disappointing.
‘When they scored the second goal, there was a short period where we looked dead and buried so from a performance point of view we know we have to be better. We’re disappointed with our quality levels, which need to improve a lot if we want to reach the final.’
It was character over quality that spurred the young Blues to victory, an inner mentality that Edwards attributed to the culture of growing up in our Academy, where finals and trophies have become a regular occurrence.
‘In order to win tournaments and progress as a player, you have to show character in tough moments so that’s a massive positive we’ve shown and we know we have in our armoury as a team,’ our Under-19s boss continued.
‘At 2-0 down, we weren’t playing well individually or collectively but you saw that typical Chelsea Academy belief where the winning mentality came through. Luke’s goals have been massive for us since he returned from injury and he was influential for us. Conor Gallagher really stepped up physically and mentally – he started carrying people with him – and Marc Guehi was driving everyone from the back, urging everyone on with all he could.
'We’ve gone from the team being ruthless and scoring a hatful of goals early in the competition to now the team that keeps on fighting right to the death, even when you think you’ve got us beaten.’
— Joe Edwards
The penalty shoot-out was eye-catching in its boldness and impudence, though Edwards admitted the spot-kicks were well-practised rather than instinctively converted.
‘A lot of people have already made comments to me about the nature of our penalties but all I can say is that a lot of preparation went into them,’ he added. ‘The lads practise them all the time so they were confident about what they needed to do. Marc’s penalty is quite audacious but that’s not the first time I’ve seen him do that!
‘Karlo’s preparation has been incredible – I’ve seen him sat at the laptop for long periods of time in recent days, working with our analyst to look at where all their takers go because obviously Zagreb have had two shoot-outs coming into this round.
‘You can do all that research but you then have to be able to execute the saves and his first one was outstanding. He’s a young kid going into an occasion that some people call a lottery but he’s prepared as well as he could and got his rewards for it.’
The Blues were rewarded too with a place in the UEFA Youth League semi-finals for the fourth time in five years, where they will face their Catalan conquerors from last season’s final. That tie will take place in Nyon, the Swiss headquarters of UEFA, on Friday 26 April.
Before then, supporters can watch Edwards’s side in action at Stamford Bridge when they take on Arsenal in Premier League 2. Tickets are currently on general sale for the Monday 15 April London derby, kick-off 7pm, priced at just £5 for adults and £3 for concessions.