On Sunday lunchtime, Stamford Bridge will host the first leg of this year’s FA Youth Cup Semi Final, as Chelsea seek to defend the crown they won eleven months ago.
Standing in their way are as tough an opponent as the young Blues have faced in the last two seasons; one with an immense record of academy production and which has won a record nine Youth Cup titles.
A crowd of over 7,000 is expected to cheer on Dermot Drummy’s young charges, who have been hit by a double blow as two key players are unavailable for selection.
Captain Daniel Pappoe will miss the first leg through suspension after picking up a red card against Blackpool in a reserve fixture last month, whilst influential midfielder Billy Clifford is sidelined with a knee injury and will play no part in either match.
It’s been a season of injury problems for the youth team and long-term knee issues also mean Philipp Prosenik, James Ashton and Danny Stenning are unavailable, whilst Reece Loudon has also been absent for a large chunk of the campaign.
As a result, Drummy will be forced to shuffle the pack, but does have a few options available to him due to the return to fitness of Rohan Ince. The young central defender has only just returned to full fitness for the first time since November, and is likely to partner Tomas Kalas in Pappoe’s absence.
Drummy could call upon England Under-17 captain Nathaniel Chalobah to drop back from midfield and plug Ince into the anchoring role there, but is more likely to leave the schoolboy in a role he has excelled in for club and country this season.
Clifford’s injury, meanwhile, poses the question of who will partner Josh McEachran in the more attacking midfield roles. So far in the competition we’ve seen Milan Lalkovic lead the line with Bobby Devyne playing a wider role, whilst McEachran and Clifford are given license to attack, safe in the knowledge that Chalobah and George Saville are sweeping up behind them.
Anton Rodgers is favourite to get the nod, and did well in the third round against Sunderland in particular, providing both goals from excellent set piece delivery.
However, Drummy could opt to push Todd Kane further forward and bring Ben Sampayo into the back four, as he did against Arsenal in Round Four. On that occasion, the experiment lasted an hour before another schoolboy, Adam Nditi, was brought into the game to add width, and he could also feature from the start, as he did against Barnsley in the following round.
Jamal Blackman and Aziz Deen-Conteh make up the rest of the likely eleven and have been impressive in the run to the final four. Despite conceding first in all but one of the ties, Blackman has been in fine form in goal and gives the team a confidence from which they can build.
Moving onto our opponents, you can find out all you need to know and more about them by reading Nick’s excellent Man United Youth (Twitter: @ManUnitedYouth), but TheChels has called upon him personally to add to this preview.
Whilst Chelsea are missing players, United are as well, most notably their best player Ravel Morrison. The England Under-19 international has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2011 but on the pitch there are few players capable of producing what he can and with the skill that he possesses.
Two goals at Anfield in the last round and the winner in the previous one at home to Newcastle are a mere glimpse of his credentials, but a red card in a reserve outing – like Pappoe – means he is out of the first leg. He will, however, be able to return for the second leg.
Top goalscorer John Cofie remains unavailable with his own ailments, whilst defenders Tyler Blackett (suspended) and Zeki Fryers (injured) add to the absentees list.
Paul Pogba, meanwhile, will have served his three-match suspension for a red card against Liverpool and line up with Ryan Tunnicliffe in Paul McGuinness’ midfield. The duo create quite a partnership, with Tunnicliffe’s tenacity and endless work rate alongside Pogba’s guile, skill and penchant for long shots, many of which result in spectacular goals.
They may also be able to welcome back forward Will Keane, who has missed some three months of action and has only had 90 minutes of total action in 2011. His eight goals are tied for the second-most behind Cofie, with Larnell Cole chipping in with the same amount.
United’s team is expected to be as follows, in a 4-4-1-1 formation:
Sam Johnstone, Michael Keane, Tom Thorpe, Michele Fornasier, Sean McGinty, Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Larnell Cole, Gyliano van Velzen, Jesse Lingard, Will Keane
The two have met once this season, on the opening weekend of the academy campaign. Then, at Cobham, first half goals from Lalkovic and Prosenik had given Chelsea the upper hand, but the Reds fought back and won with goals from McGinty, Michael Keane and Cofie.
They also clashed in the FA Youth Cup in the 2008-09 season, when it was the Blues who won 3-2, courtesy of strikes from Gael Kakuta, Frank Nouble and Fabio Borini.
After Sunday’s action, the teams reconvene at Old Trafford for the decider on Wednesday April 20th, with the winner due to face Sheffield United in a two-legged Final in late April/early May.
The Blades secured their first ever final berth with a 3-0 aggregate win over last year’s runners-up Aston Villa, with captain Elliott Whitehouse scoring a brace in the second leg before being sent off later in the game.
You can expect live updates throughout from Stamford Bridge on Twitter by following @chelseayouth. It promises to be an entertaining and intriguing affair, so make sure you’re there supporting the Blues of tomorrow.