Chelsea find themselves in a commanding position in the FA Youth Cup once again after winning the first leg of their Semi Final away to Liverpool by two goals to nil.
A closely-fought encounter was settled at the very death as Alex Kiwomya continued his fine form in this season’s competition, scoring for the fourth game in succession and taking his tally to six in five outings with two strikes in the 89th and 91st minutes respectively.
Both sides had hit the post during a frantic second half which threatened to somehow end goalless despite some fine attacking play, but Kiwomya proved the decisive player once again.
Each side had injury concerns and others unavailable heading into the tie, and Adi Viveash sprung something of a surprise in his team selection.
Deprived of Nathan Aké due to first team duty and Adam Nditi, Jordan Houghton and Jordan Houghton through various long-term ailments, there was a place in the back four for Under-16 defender Ola Aina. He started at right-back, meaning a move inside for Andreas Christensen, who partnered Alex Davey, whilst Kevin Wright deputised for Nditi on the left.
Aina was joined in the team by two other schoolboys in Jeremie Boga and Charlie Colkett, whilst Kiwomya, Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Islam Feruz all reprised their regular roles.
Liverpool’s plans to feature Raheem Sterling were scuppered after the England international suffered a thigh injury last week, whilst Marc Pelosi and Jerome Sinclair were also kept out of action. Sinclair’s absence meant a start in attack for Kristoffer Peterson alongside the dangerous Jordon Ibe and Jack Dunn, whilst manager Steve Cooper surprisingly opted for Cameron Brannagan’s services in midfield instead of Daniel Trickett-Smith.
Chelsea enjoyed much of the early going in front of roughly 5000 fans at Anfield and moved the ball around with confidence in the opening stages. Goalmouth action was scarce to begin with, with a blocked Feruz effort the scant reward for some enterprising early football by the Blues.
It look until midway through the first half for Liverpool to get a firm grip on proceedings but they were able to threaten well before that, playing with great purpose and dynamism when picking up possession. Full-back Ryan McLaughlin, who is considered to be on the cusp of a first-team bow, thundered forward in imposing style before running out of space in the box, whilst Jordan Rossiter headed wide from a corner.
When the Reds got themselves into a position to dictate the play, they sought to utilise the considerable talents of Ibe on the wing. He was generally well shackled for much of the time by the impressive youngster Aina but still managed to come alive in spells and gave an indication of what he was capable of with a long-range effort which deflected away for a corner.
His next effort was much more dangerous and required a fine stop from Mitchell Beeney low down to his left hand side. The ball rolled invitingly loose into the six yard box but with Peterson ready to pounce, Christensen made an excellent and timely intervention to clear the ball from danger.
Beeney then did well to intercept a cross from the crafty Peterson before making a relatively routine save from the same man minutes later after a low shot from the edge of the area. At the other end, Feruz dragged a shot wide of the post after some fine approach play, whilst Loftus-Cheek curiously opted to duck out of the way of an excellent Kiwomya cross when well placed to score.
Colkett, who was having an increasingly effective game in midfield, had a good if tough chance to test goalkeeper Ryan Fulton moments before the break but struggled to keep his shot down. Davey then headed wide from a corner taken by the left-footed schemer.
Kiwomya twice tried to take advantage of his exceptional pace late in the half but was clipped when running clear in the first instance and struggled to regain his balance, and then was beaten to Baker’s exquisite pass by Fulton in first half stoppage time, ensuring a 0-0 score at the break.
The visitors were quickly back into their rhythm as second half action commenced and Boga came alive for the first time on the night. He beat two or three men whilst cutting inside from the left but couldn’t keep his bending shot down, and then whipped in a fierce free kick which Fulton did well to punch clear.
In what was a very strong five-minute period for Chelsea, Aina then got forward and thumped a cross into the near post which took a deflection before clipping the inside of the near post and racing away for a corner.
Colkett’s tidy evening came to an end just shy of the hour as John Swift entered the fray in a move which saw Baker move further forward and Boga shift inside to his preferred central attacking role behind Feruz. Liverpool were forced into a change of their own when a messy tackle by Loftus-Cheek on Lussey left the Reds’ skipper unable to continue, so Trickett-Smith eventually saw playing time.
Swift’s impact was immediate as he released Feruz with a perfectly-weighted through ball, but for the second time on the evening, the woodwork denied Chelsea as his shot bounced back off the post. Fulton made a smart save to keep Loftus-Cheek’s follow-up effort out.
Kiwomya then had an eternity in which to pick a finish but saw his shot scrambled clear by a combination of goalkeeper and defender and as Liverpool broke on the counter in double-quick fashion, it was down to Beeney again to once again keep Peterson at bay, although this time it was the home team who had their hearts broken by the frame of the goal, which offered the Chelsea goalkeeper some assistance.
Viveash’s final two changes were both enforced and in quick succession. First, Aina fell victim to the intensity of his toughest assignment thus far in his fledgling career and Fankaty Dabo came on in a straight swap at right-back. Christensen then went off with a lower leg problem after an awkward landing and Dion Conroy replaced the stricken Dane.
Liverpool pressed to take advantage of any potential loss in concentration at the back with two newcomers in the Chelsea ranks but were unable to fashion a shooting chance, and the visitors finished as strongly as they started. Boga had a fine chance to seize a late advantage but shot wide of the target when well positioned, but the breakthrough would eventually come with just two minutes left on the clock.
Baker’s ambitious shot from long range threatened nobody whatsoever but it took a nick on the way through and bobbled and bounced around in the Liverpool box. Kiwomya remained composed enough to settle the ball sufficiently before volleying into the back of the net from ten yards out.
A one-goal lead going back to the Bridge in seven days would have been reward enough, but having taken the lead, Chelsea were not content to settle for their lot and in stoppage time Kiwomya scored a second, showing composure and touch to finish from a wide position after Boga had cut through the tired Liverpool defence to make it 2-0.
It was a most dramatic end to the evening’s action and gives the Blues a superb opportunity of reaching another Final. They will hope to take care of business next Friday at home, having turned in a fine team performance here. Liverpool will probably feel justified in feeling that there was never a two-goal margin between the sides but will face an uphill task to salvage the tie from here. They remain eminently capable of it though, and a fascinating second leg awaits.
Liverpool: Fulton, McLaughlin, Jones, Cleary, Maguire, Rossiter, Lussey (c) (Trickett-Smith), Brannagan, Ibe (Sinclair), Peterson, Dunn
Subs not Used: Crump, Baio, O’Hanlon
Chelsea: Beeney, Aina (Dabo), Davey, Christensen (Conroy), Wright, Loftus-Cheek, Baker (c), Colkett (Swift), Boga, Kiwomya, Feruz
Subs not Used: Killip, Hunte