The long Easter weekend is always a busy one on the football front, but it’s particularly jam-packed this year for Chelsea.
Not only do the first team face the prospect of two games in the space of 48 hours, but the club’s Under-19 team head to Italy for the final stages of this season’s NextGen Series. A Friday afternoon Semi Final against Arsenal kicks off the extravaganza at Lake Como in Italy, ahead of a potential Final on Easter Monday evening.
The tournament, effectively a 24-team ‘Champions League’ for European junior teams (but entirely unaffiliated with UEFA), has a distinctly English flavour to its final four, with Aston Villa squaring off against Sporting CP in the second Semi Final. All four matches over the long weekend (including a third-placed playoff on Sunday) are to be played at Como Calcio’s Stadio Giuseppe Chinigaglia, where although the weather is traditionally welcoming, the forecast is set to be just as cold and wet as it currently is back in the United Kingdom.
At the turn of the calendar year, it might have appeared ambitious if you had suggested Chelsea and Arsenal would be drawn against each other for a place in the Final. Both teams left it late to secure their paths out of competitive groups, with Arsenal doing so in early December after a 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao, whilst Chelsea had to wait until late January, when a draw away to Ajax sent them into the last sixteen.
The rest of the story is more familiar to Blues fans. A superb victory away to Barcelona sent a clear message that this Chelsea team were contenders, and they arguably separated themselves from the pack with a 4-1 demolition of Juventus in March’s Quarter Finals.
Arsenal’s route through the knockout rounds was no less impressive as they came through a rain-sodden trip to defending champions Inter with a 1-0 victory before this week beating a CSKA Moscow team which had already claimed the scalp of Chelsea at Cobham on the opening matchday of the tournament.
It’s perhaps fitting that in a season where the two clubs have not met at either Under-18 or Under-21 level – the first time that has happened in well over a decade, if not longer – they are paired together in a prestigious match on a big stage.
It promises to be an entertaining if tense game of football, with both sides possessing attacking flair by the bucketload, yet they are also the two remaining teams with the best defensive record, averaging less than a goal per game conceded in the series.
Chelsea coach Dermot Drummy, a former Arsenal employee at their Hale End academy, spoke earlier this week of less than ideal preparations ahead of the trip to Italy, with a number of his players away on international duty and not arriving back with the squad until Thursday or, in some cases, the day of the game itself.
Andreas Christensen, Nathan Aké, Lewis Baker, Alex Davey and Islam Feruz have all been away with their respective countries over the break, with Aké set to be the last one back, whilst England Under-17 duo Alex Kiwomya and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, both so impressive in the victory over Juventus, may be forced into action twice in as many days due to Three Lions commitments against Slovenia in Burton 24 hours prior to kick-off in Como.
Drummy’s team selection is expected to follow on from the Juventus fixture, with most of his other options used throughout the run to this stage unavailable to due loan departures and injuries. Jamal Blackman should get the nod in goal, with Christensen, Aké and Davey amongst the back four. Baker and Loftus-Cheek should hopefully reprise their roles in the midfield fulcrum, with Kiwomya, Jeremie Boga and Feruz ahead of them.
The only spots up for grabs are on the left flank, where Adam Nditi will almost certainly continue his ever-present NextGen streak, but it remains unclear whether he will be at left-back or in a more advanced role. He has mainly been used in defence, but in recent weeks has proved adept further forward, with full-back Kevin Wright starting in the last round due to Connor Hunte’s suspension.
Hunte offers the most in attack of the trio, but in direct competition with a talented Arsenal right side featuring Hector Bellerin and Serge Gnabry, Drummy may go for the capable combination of Wright and Nditi.
Gnabry stands out as the game-changer for Arsenal and is one of just two players in their likely starting team with first team experience. He is a difference maker with attacking versatility and the capacity to score from anywhere and will be the man the Gunners turn to on Friday, especially if dangerous forward Chuba Akpom (himself an excellent prospect) continues to be hampered by injury.
Macedonian stopper Dejan Iliev appears to have made a much-rotated position his own in goal, whilst the improving and exciting Bellerin stands out in a defensive unit including Isaac Hayden, Sead Hajrovic and Martin Angha. Whilst the group has played well at times, it is clearly the weakest area of Arsenal’s team and Drummy’s pre-match comments hinted that he felt Chelsea could get at them and cause them problems.
Of course, Arsenal can do just the same to Chelsea and in Kristoffer Olsson, Kyle Ebecilio and Thomas Eisfeld they have an international-flavoured trio of schemers who all offer technical capabilities. Their offensive inclinations leave captain Nico Yennaris – the other player with decent first team experience to his name – with a lot of defensive work but it’s an area he revels in and will look to dominate the middle of the park.
If Chelsea play to their full capacity they will fancy themselves to be favourites but it will certainly not be an easy fixture against an Arsenal side which whilst having had their own struggles this season has displayed perhaps uncharacteristic resilience and a team spirit which will bode well for their future.
Friday’s second game pits Aston Villa against Sporting CP. The Portuguese have one of Europe’s leading academies and continues to be exceptionally strong despite a number of eligible players having graduated into their penniless first team.
They scored nine goals in eliminating both Liverpool and Tottenham in the knockout rounds and will look to see off two more English outfits on their way to NextGen glory. Villa have perhaps had the easiest route of all Semi Finalists, with just a trip to Ajax of noted opponents, but they did share a group with Sporting, losing 3-1 at Villa Park but managing an astounding 5-1 win in the return clash.
All four of the weekend’s matches are live on Eurosport, with Chelsea’s matches being carried on Chelsea TV as well. You can keep up with all of the latest news by following the official competition Twitter @nextgenseries, whilst everything with a Chelsea slant will be present as usual @chelseayouth.