The current FA Youth Cup holders got their defence of the trophy off to a strong start on Wednesday lunchtime with a hard-fought 2-0 win over Sunderland.
Second half goals from Nathaniel Chalobah and George Saville ensured that Chelsea came away from the tie with a place in the fourth round, and a meeting with Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
The match, which was originally scheduled for mid-December but repeatedly fell foul of the weather, was subject to yet another late change, as the Eppleton Colliery Welfare Ground pitch was deemed unsuitable for play.
That meant that proceedings were brought forward six hours and moved behind closed doors at Sunderland’s Academy of Light.
Youth Team Manager Dermot Drummy’s team selection was aided by the five-week delay, as he was able to welcome captain Daniel Pappoe into his back four after a considerable layoff.
He was partnered by Archange Nkumu, with reserve team experience at full-back in the form of Billy Clifford and Aziz Deen-Conteh. However, there was no Josh McEachran in midfield, with Carlo Ancelotti needing him for the first team squad.
Instead, Anton Rodgers anchored a three-man unit, with Chalobah and Saville in more advanced positions. Milan Lalkovic led the line, flanked by Bobby Devyne and Todd Kane, who leads the youth team in front of goal so far this season.
Kevin Ball’s Black Cats included England youth international defender Louis Laing and former Blues scholar Billy Knott, who signed for the club in the summer, having left Chelsea at the start of 2010.
In extremely blustery conditions, the match got underway with a sense of underwhelming, for the Youth Cup is a competition which usually takes place in a stadium and in front of at least a few supporters.
Yet needs must, and both sides were cautious in their early approach, taking time to be sure of their touch on a pitch which was slightly heavy and sticky. The first sight of goal came for Lalkovic, who volleyed over from close range after taking down a long ball.
Chelsea were keen to get the ball wide as often as possible, utilising the attacking instincts of their full-backs to full effect. Clifford hit the bye line with impressively quick feet but his cross was overhit with few blue shirts in the goalmouth.
At the other end, the lively Knott, playing with a free role, had Sunderland’s first effort in anger, but his slow, curling shot was dealt with comfortably by Jamal Blackman.
It took until midway through the first half for someone to truly threaten the scorers, and it came when Lalkovic connected well with a volley from Kane’s cross. Sunderland goalkeeper Lewis King got a touch, as did a covering defender on the line to keep it out, but Devyne rushed the rebound and failed to connect with the ball.
Chelsea had dominated the majority of possession but were found to be sitting too deep at times, and were too passive in their approach. They allowed Sunderland to play in space, and as such the hosts began to get a footing in the game and became a threat themselves.
Everything went through Knott, who was bound to be their talisman in this particular fixture. He came within inches of scoring with a diving header which Blackman tipped wide, although it looked to have been missing the target anyway.
Minutes later he came even closer. A cross from the right was poorly defended and only partially cleared, and Knott connected with a volley from eighteen yards out which skidded past Blackman but thudded back off of the post.
It woke Chelsea with a jolt, and Drummy’s team suddenly played like they were supposed to. Good closing down led to a turnover of possession, and Clifford drove at the heart of the home defence with a run from midfield.
He reached the edge of the area and jinked outside to set up a shooting opportunity, but King managed to get a finger on it as it hit the frame of the goal at the other end.
With the woodwork having been struck once apiece, Lalkovic had a couple of half chances before half time but both sides made the long walk back to the changing rooms with work to do, but a degree of satisfaction with their first half displays.
No changes immediately followed the restart, but within ten minutes Drummy shuffled his pack. Ben Sampayo replaced Archange Nkumu, and in a planned tactical swap, Clifford moved into midfield, with Chalobah at centre-back. Sampayo would therefore play in his familiar right-back role.
Advancing Clifford further up the pitch was a ploy to take control of the game in the middle of the park and add an element of creativity into a midfield which had done its job, but lacked a punch in the final third.
Knott, meanwhile, continued his personal assault on the visitors’ goal, once again going agonisingly close to scoring against old team-mates, but having broken clear of the defence, his finish was wide of the target.
His side were looking the more likely to score, but such is football, Chelsea opened the scoring shortly after the hour mark.
Rodgers swung a free kick in from way out on the left towards Pappoe, but the defender beat him to it. Clifford pounced on the loose ball and shot towards goal, where Chalobah would turn it over the line with a deft backheel.
The schoolboy defender was unable to head off on a choreographed celebration, however, as he suffered cramp in the act of scoring.
Now in front, Chelsea looked a different team and began to stride forward with confidence and freedom. Sunderland heads had dropped and Knott, such an integral figure throughout, now resembled nothing but a peripheral one.
With fifteen minutes remaining another set piece resulted in a second goal, and put the tie to bed. Once again, Rodgers’ delivery was a dangerous one, and once more Sunderland struggled to clear.
The ball bounced around wildly, and King made three incredible saves in a row to keep Chelsea at bay, but Saville eventually bundled the ball over the line for his first ever competitive goal.
He was, however, offside by some margin. Despite home protests, the goal stood, and it was the Blues who progressed into the next round, still dreaming of retaining the trophy they won so brilliantly last season.
The performance wasn’t a classic, but as captain Pappoe noted at full time, it was a battle, and a hugely satisfying fixture to come out on top in. It required top levels of stamina and courage, and patience to compete until the goal came.
Sunderland had their chances – many coming from poor defending – but didn’t take them. On another day Knott may well have had a hat-trick and emerged the victor.
Chalobah’s performance was useful, particularly when he moved into defence, a unit which played very well both individually and as a group. The offensive firepower of last season’s winners was built on a back five which conceded just three goals throughout the run.
This season’s group is stronger at the back than anywhere else, and they led the way as they will need to against Arsenal. Adding goals from ‘secondary’ scorers will also have been a bonus to Drummy, who lacks numbers in attack and therefore has to turn to others for firepower.
All in all, a stout first defence for the holders. Bring on Arsenal.
Team: Blackman, B.Clifford, Pappoe (c), Nkumu (Sampayo 54), Deen-Conteh, Rodgers, Chalobah (Nditi 90), Saville, Kane, Devyne, Lalkovic
Subs not Used: Tomlinson, Affane, Stenning
Goals: Chalobah 62, Saville 75
(picture copyright safc.com)