Joe Edwards has urged his team to be brave and face the challenges of a European semi-final head-on as our Under-19s prepare to take on Barcelona in the UEFA Youth League this evening.
The Blues are back in the Swiss town of Nyon, home to UEFA headquarters and host of the finals weekend, looking to right the wrongs of last term. It was 12 months ago when our youngsters were comfortably beaten by Barcelona in the 2018 final, a result and performance that has lingered long and painfully in the memory.
In the poetic way that only football seems to conjure, it’s the Catalans once again standing in the way of Edwards’s side and a third Youth League triumph. Yet rather than seeking revenge, the manager has called on his players to showcase their talent on the biggest of stages by using the confidence and momentum of their run to the last four.
‘It feels like we’re arriving at this stage of the competition having experienced a bit of everything,’ he tells the official Chelsea website as we look ahead to the semi-final. ‘The games early on were potential banana skins because we were big favourites but we dispatched of those in quite a professional and ruthless manner. The first knockout tie against Monaco was probably our highest-level game so far and they had a lot of the ball but we were clinical again.
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‘Montpellier and Dinamo Zagreb in the last two games have been difficult. They were both teams who came to Cobham and set up deep, tried to break up the momentum of the game and nick something on the counter-attack. Reflecting on our performances across the Under-19s and development squad this season, those type of games have not really suited us where we have to really probe to unlock the opponent.
‘We’re clearly expecting a different approach from Barcelona – they won’t sit off and let us have loads of the ball so we need to produce a performance like at Man City or Liverpool recently where we work hard, keep our shape and then use the ball well when we do get hold of it. We’ve tended to lift our levels against those opponents and we’ll need a similar performance again in this semi-final.’
Eight of the 14 who featured in last year’s final have been involved this campaign and there has been an inevitability about us meeting Barcelona again this term, though Edwards hopes his side can give a better account of themselves than they did in the last meeting.
‘The feeling last year was not just being devastated at missing out on a trophy but real disappointment that we didn’t show up on the day,’ Edwards recalls. ‘We respect that playing in a European semi-final against Barcelona is a big stage and it’s a good showcase of youth football.
‘People will be tuning in wanting to see who the best academy in Europe is and where the next big talents are coming from so we want to make sure we show people something we can be proud of.'
— Joe Edwards
‘We’ve done our work and preparation so now we just have to make sure we turn up and give a good account of ourselves in the game. For all the problems Barcelona will undoubtedly cause us, we need to make sure we use our own strengths to ask questions of them as well.’
Barcelona will bring no surprises in their approach, favouring their renowned 4-3-3 system and with gifted players throughout. Edwards, his staff and players know what to expect but combating that threat will be another challenge entirely.
‘We feel very well-prepared but we felt the same last year even though it was only a couple of days after the semi-final,’ he explains. ‘Whatever happened in that final had nothing to do with Barcelona catching us by surprise or any individuals we didn’t know about – it was a case of us not performing at all well on the day.
‘We know what their players are all about, what style they’re going to play, but that doesn’t make it any easier. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult game but we’ve talked a lot this week amongst the group about how these are the games you want to be involved in as a player.
‘You don’t want the players looking at the fact that Barca have some really talented individuals as a pressure or something to be afraid of because we’d much rather be here facing these problems than sitting at home watching it on TV.’
The manager reports a fit and healthy squad have travelled to Switzerland, giving him tough decisions to make in regards to shape and personnel.
‘It’s been difficult to pick the team but difficult in a good way because everyone is fit and available,’ he adds. ‘We’ve got five ‘over-age’ players who are all important to us but we can only use three of them in a match day squad so that’s been a tough decision to make.
‘Similarly, we’ve been playing with two up top a lot this season but more recently have been experimenting with the box in midfield and one striker. That’s given us plenty to think about but it also gives us flexibility, which is a good thing.’
Chelsea versus Barcelona in the UEFA Youth League semi-final kicks off at 5pm (UK time) this evening, live on BT Sport 1. There will be updates throughout on our official @chelseafc Twitter.