Our Under-18s will contest the FA Youth Cup once again following a hard-fought victory over Manchester United on Friday night.
It is an eighth appearance in the final in the past nine years for the Chelsea Academy and an opportunity to draw level with United on 10 titles when we take on the blue side of Manchester back at St George’s Park in three days’ time.
Ed Brand’s side will feel they deserved their victory in a meeting between this prestigious competition’s most successful clubs. We came flying out of the blocks and were relentless in the first half hour but Tino Livramento’s header against the crossbar was the closest we came and United, despite having less control in the contest, also fashioned chances and hit the woodwork.
The decisive moment came early in the second half when Bryan Fiabema swept an expert finish high into the net to convert Livramento’s clever low cross. Despite more chances coming, there were no further goals as the Blues defended well and booked their place in Monday’s final.
There were four Chelsea changes from our quarter-final victory over Millwall back in February, two of which were enforced as Ian Maatsen and the match-winner that night Armando Broja have since departed on loan to Charlton Athletic and Vitesse respectively. Lucas Bergstrom replaced Jake Askew in goal, while Dion Rankine came in for his first Youth Cup start.
It was 3-4-2-1 for the Blues with Norwegian Fiabema leading the attack and captain Tino Anjorin partnering Lewis Bate in central midfield.
Grand occasion with a difference
There was regret that this semi-final could not take place in front of supporters at Stamford Bridge as originally planned but the relocation to St George’s Park, training base for the England national teams, provided an apt reminder of previous players to have graced this stage for both clubs.
Mount, Abraham, Rashford, Greenwood, James, Tomori and Loftus-Cheek are just some of the familiar recent names to have graduated from the Youth Cup to earn caps for the Three Lions and this was another generation hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Speaking of England internationals, a moment’s silence prior to kick-off was held in memory of Nobby Stiles, the England World Cup winner and United star who also progressed from this junior competition to win silverware at Old Trafford, as well as the Manchester City teenager Jeremy Witsen who passed away earlier in the week.
Corners cause chaos
Brand’s boys pressed high and frequently caught the Reds out in the opening exchanges, forcing one early corner that required a clearance off the line as Levi Colwill’s towering header looked to have opened the scoring.
Another corner shortly afterwards again found Colwill’s head and dropped into the six-yard box, where it appeared to hit a defender’s hand, although the officials were unmoved despite television replays placing it firmly in the ‘seen them given’ category.
Blues on top
Our sharp start in and out of possession was suffocating United, who found themselves swarmed upon with intensity and aggression whenever they regained possession. Their goal was leading a charmed life too and its frame was rattling when Livramento met Fiabema’s cross and his header clipped the crossbar.
Ondrej Mastny, the United keeper, had to be alert to deny Myles Peart-Harris and Rankine as the pressure from the Blues proved unrelenting, although there was always a feeling that a failure to take a chance during this period of dominance could come back to haunt us.
Bergstrom had to react quickly to make sure that wasn’t the case when one long ball set striker Mark Helm running through and our Finnish stopper adjusted his feet to get down and make the save, before doing similar to keep out Charlie McCann’s effort through a box of crowded bodies.
The moment of the half, however, came in our box when Anthony Elanga juggled the ball to conjure a great overhead strike that came back off the bar with Bergstrom scrambling. Our keeper then had to save again from Helm early after the restart, using his feet to great effect, before the breakthrough finally arrived.
Fiabema on fire
It was a textbook training ground goal that broke the deadlock four minutes into the second half, Anjorin and Bate working hard to win the ball in midfield and then shift it over to the advancing Livramento on the right wing.
The England Under-20 international delivered a perfect cutback cross along the slick turf and Fiabema had held his run to find enough space to finish high into the net. It was quite the time for the teenager from Tromso to open his Youth Cup account!
Yet there was still a lot of football to play and a team of United’s quality would always pose a threat. Colwill’s defending was impressive in and around the box, while Bergstrom organised constantly and remained a big presence between the posts, coming to claim one late set-piece in commanding fashion.
Seeing it out
United captain Teden Mengi could only direct a free header straight at Bergstrom as the minutes ebbed away, with substitutes Harvey Vale and Jude Soonsup-Bell adding fresh legs and impetus to our attacking endeavours.
There were some nervy moments late on, particularly when Elanga escaped in the box, but Colwill was there again and the job was done. The clean sheet means we have not conceded a goal in the competition since our 4-3 defeat to United in the third round 22 months ago and progress to the final means Chelsea and City will play it out for the trophy, just like in 2015, 2016 and 2017. For the first time, this final will be one-legged back at St George's Park on Monday, kick-off 7.30pm and live on BT Sport.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1) Lucas Bergstrom; Henry Lawrence, Dynel Simeu, Levi Colwill; Tino Livramento, Lewis Bate, Tino Anjorin (c), Dion Rankine; Myles Peart-Harris (Harvey Vale 55), Marcel Lewis (Thierno Ballo 90+3); Bryan Fiabema (Jude Soonsup-Bell 71)Unused subs Bashir Humphreys, Jake Askew, George Nunn, Ben ElliottScorer Fiabema 49Booked Anjorin 31; Simeu 86
Manchester United Ondrej Mastny, Lukasz Bejger, Reece Devine (Bjorn Hardley 77), Teden Mengi (c), William Fish, Martin Svidersky, Shola Shoretire (Omari Forson 86), Charlie McCann, Mark Helm (Charlie Wellens 71), Hannibal Mejbri, Anthony ElangaUnused subs Harvey Neville, Dermot Mee, Charlie Savage, Zidane IqbalBooked Mejbri 39
Referee Ollie Yates