UYL report: Zenit St Petersburg 1 Chelsea 1

Our Under-19s booked their place in the UEFA Youth League play-off round with a gutsy draw in sub-zero Russian temperatures in our group stage finale.

The young Blues knew a point would be enough to seal second spot in Group H and Alfie Gilchrist’s header early in the second half proved enough for Andy Myers’s youngsters, despite the concession of an equaliser 15 minutes later.

The freezing weather, with snow coating the city of St Petersburg, combined with the team’s unusual preparation in not training on the day prior to the game due to the long travel, made it a challenging contest but the learning curve will undoubtedly have been character-building for a group whose journey in the competition will continue in the new year.

The selection

Myers made four changes from our matchday five defeat at home to Juventus, with Jude Soonsup-Bell, Harvey Vale and Josh Brooking among the returning starters, the latter wearing a protective mask following a recent facial injury.

It was back to 3-4-2-1 for the Blues as Alfie Gilchrist and Brodi Hughes joined Brooking in the back three protecting Lucas Bergstrom’s goal.

Facing the elements

These were pretty unique conditions for a football match to be played in, deep in the Russian winter and with the temperature at kick-off a bracing -12C, cold even by December in St Petersburg standards.

The Smena Stadium pitch had been a snow heap just 48 hours prior to the game taking place and the surface was understandably rough and bumpy as a result, though our hosts had done a commendable job to ensure the group finale could go ahead as planned.

Myers’s men were in no mood to hang about from the first whistle, testing Zenit keeper David Byazrov inside five minutes through Vale with a low effort that was too central to concern the Russians, who needed to win by two clear goals in order to pip us to second place in the group on the head-to-head record.

Chances but no breakthrough

Neither side were truly on top in the first half and shots were exchanged down both ends, keeping the respective goalkeepers’ gloves warm at least. Soonsup-Bell sliced wide before teeing up Xavier Simons after an attack down the right, though the ball came in at an awkward height for the skipper and he could only guide it over the bar.

Striker Vladislav Saus then tested Bergstrom with an attempt the Finn proved equal to before the visitors replied with Silko Thomas shooting tamely and Lewis Hall firing over following Charlie Webster’s cutback.

Those two combined again midway through the first period, Hall swinging in a corner dangerously from the right and Webster getting there but heading just the wrong side of Byazrov’s near upright.

Heading in front

The visitors, donning our changed third strip, ended the half in the ascendancy. Arseniy Zigangirov lost out to Soonsup-Bell and then took out Vale on the edge of the box, a foul which earned the centre-back the game’s first booking. From the resulting free-kick, Webster curled a strike promisingly towards the left corner but just off-target.

Joe Haigh then threatened with a mazy dribble while Soonsup-Bell made a rare cutting run in behind but both finishes lacked the necessary conviction to prove the opener. However, it didn’t take long into the second half for that elusive breakthrough to finally arrive.

With our attacking talent running out of answers, it was defender Gilchrist who powered the visitors into a 50th-minute lead, Hall turning provider with a cross from the right and the 18-year-old thundering a downward header into the bottom corner to make it 1-0.

That proved a decisive moment in the contest, extinguishing Zenit’s long-shot ambitions of progress from the group and handing the Blues a platform on which to build in the final 40 minutes.

Russian resistance

Yet it was Bergstrom involved in the centre of the action over the next period in the game, first reacting brilliantly to deny Roni Mikhailovskii before watching Daniil Kuznetsov blaze the rebound over and then thwarting the latter again as he had a go from distance.

Despite those excellent efforts, the Finn was at fault shortly afterwards when Zenit equalised through Evgeny Kim, whose shot squirmed through the goalkeeper’s grasp and trickled across the snowy surface and over the line.

Redemption of sorts was swift as Bergstrom dived low to his left to retain parity in the contest, though the hosts were growing in confidence and threatening as much as they had all afternoon in pursuit of a late winner. Mikhailovskii misfired and Kim headed wide when unmarked from a corner in the home team's best flurry of opportunities.

Sub-zero subs impact

Changes aided the Blues as Malik Mothersille dragged a shot wide and then his fellow substitute Leo Castledine clipped the outside of the far post with an arrowing effort from the right before Zenit had keeper Byazrov to thank for preserving a point.

The Zenit shot-stopper produced an excellent double save with five minutes remaining to keep out Dion Rankine and then Luke Badley-Morgan on the rebound, the latter requiring excellent reflexes to close the space at the near post.

Despite the visitors having two goals ruled out late on for offside, the 1-1 draw was enough to get the job done and our return back to London with a point was almost as welcome as the return to the dressing room warmth once the final whistle sounded.

What’s next?

The Blues advance to the UEFA Youth League play-off round, where they will travel to take on a winner from the Domestic Champions pathway in a one-legged tie in order to reach the last-16.

Before then, FA Youth Cup football returns this weekend with our third round tie at home to Leyton Orient. Kick-off at Kingsmeadow is 12 noon and you can purchase tickets online here.

Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Lucas Bergstrom; Josh Brooking, Alfie Gilchrist, Brodi Hughes; Silko Thomas (Dion Rankine 74), Xavier Simons (c), Charlie Webster (Jayden Wareham 86), Lewis Hall (Luke Badley-Morgan 86); Joe Haigh (Leo Castledine 74), Harvey Vale; Jude Soonsup-Bell (Malik Mothersille 64)
Unused subs Prince Adegoke, Bryan Fiabema
Scorer Gilchrist 50
Booked Brooking 72; Thomas 73

Zenit St Petersburg (4-3-3) David Byazrov; Dmitrii Bykov, Arseniy Zigangirov (c), Danila Khotulev, Aleksandr Sandrachuk; Evgeny Kim, Dmitrii Vasilev, Roni Mikhailovskii; Andrey Maryonov (Kirill Khvastukhin 66), Vladislav Saus (Akim Belokhonov h/t), Daniil Kuznetsov
Unused subs Georgii Korolev, Matvey Troshchenkov, Elisei Emelianov, Valerii Murzakov, Ruslan Khailoev
Scorer Kim 66
Booked Zigangirov 36

Referee Dumitri Muntean from Moldova

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