Dramatic events in the closing moment of any football match can not only shape the narrative of a contest, but in the case of a two-legged tie, set the scene for the renewal of acquaintances.
And, so, as Tottenham’s Kazaiah Sterling threw his team a lifeline with an 87th-minute goal at White Hart Lane, and as Luke McCormick struck the post with a stoppage time penalty for Chelsea, Saturday’s date at Stamford Bridge suddenly looks a lot closer a contest than it might have otherwise been.
For 85 minutes in balmy North London, Jody Morris’ young Blues were well in command of this FA Youth Cup Semi Final and seemingly en route to a fifth final in succession, seeking to retain the trophy they’ve lifted for each of the last three years. First-half headers from Reece James and Iké Ugbo asserted their dominance over a Tottenham side that simply had no answer to their technique, physicality, or tactical execution. Then Sterling struck, the woodwork intervened on McCormick, and things remain well poised at the midweek interval.
Chelsea had a veritable wealth of talent to pick from for such an important date, so much so that six eligible players turned out for the Development Squad the previous evening. Morris opted for the 3-4-3 formation again, picking Josh Grant ahead of Marc Guehi alongside James and Trevoh Chalobah in defence, and handing a first Youth Cup appearance to Juan Castillo at left wing back. Captain Mason Mount, scorer of five goals in the competition so far, was pushed further forward so as to accommodate the left-footed midfield control of Tariq Uwakwe.
If there were any big-stage nerves, they weren’t apparent, as Chelsea set about their task quickly and effectively. Mount struck the post with a dipping free kick from 30 yards out before Callum Hudson-Odoi had a shot deflected wide and Ugbo rather hurriedly snatched at a good opening he’d created with an improvised touch into space.
Tottenham’s main threat was carried by the pace of Keanan Bennetts, but even he wasn’t quick enough to stop the imperious Chalobah from sweeping up any and every foray into his territory, and the momentum continued to move Chelsea’s way. Dujon Sterling rose well to meet Castillo’s cross but couldn’t truly test Brandon Austin in the home goal, but the opener wasn’t far away.
It came in from a set piece; Uwakwe spinning a corner into the near post, where James’ darting run and glancing header were both too quick and too cute for Spurs to respond to, the ball looping into the far corner in front of the travelling Chelsea supporters.
They had further reason to celebrate before half time as well, with Castillo and Sterling combining to good effect once again, the latter hooking the ball back into the middle for Ugbo to rise highest and crash home his 15th goal of the season and make it 2-0.
It was about as deserved a lead as there could be, but it should have become even more emphatic on the second half. A ream of chances came and went without the Blues adding to their tally, something they might well have come to regret come the full time whistle, but for twenty second half minutes, there was only one team in it.
Sterling started things off with a fizzing ball across the face of goal that just had too much on it for Ugbo to connect, before Mount and Hudson-Odoi both worked Austin from the edge of the area with well-struck attempts. The Tottenham stopper earned the luck he needed to then keep out Ugbo from close range, but was back at work from the following corner, James stinging his hands with a volley.
Ugbo and Grant also missed the target as the game wore on, with substitutes on both teams looking to make an impact and provide the crucial third goal. Centre back Japhet Tanganga tried to take things into his own hands for Spurs, bursting through from the back and finding himself with a clear sight of goal, but looked to lose his balance at the last moment, allowing Grant to come across and intervene.
The Sterling wearing white finally asked Jamie Cumming to make a save in the 75th minute, but it was Ugbo who spurned the gilt-edged opportunity Chelsea had waited for when he linked well with George McEachran only to place his shot too close to Austin who, for good measure, got back up and pushed away another dig from Mount.
One of the subs did make a difference, and it was Tottenham’s Jack Roles who came up trumps. The midfielder has netted sixteen times this season but turned provider three minutes from time, skipping past enough tackles to leave Kazaiah Sterling open, and he slotted past Cumming to give his team a crucial foothold ahead of the second leg.
Or so he thought. With three minutes of stoppage time having just started, Harvey St Clair was dragged down in the box and a penalty was awarded. A few handbags delayed the taking of the spot kick but, despite converting from the spot five times in his last four appearances, McCormick couldn’t restore the two-goal lead, sending a low effort to Austin’s right but onto the foot of the post and back out.
And so to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, where Chelsea carry an advantage home with them and will be confident of securing safe passage through to get another Final, particularly if they play the same way as they did here. Yet that late goal, combined with the penalty miss, will give both teams plenty of food for thought, and this is the FA Youth Cup. Anything can happen.
Tottenham Hotspur: Austin, Eyoma, Tsaroulla, Marsh (Griffiths), Tanganga, Dinzeyi, Tanganga, Shashoua (Duncan), Skipp (Roles), Sterling, Oakley-Boothe, Bennetts
Subs not Used: Whiteman, Hinds
Booked: Marsh, Tanganga
Chelsea: Cumming, James, T.Chalobah, Grant, Castillo, Uwakwe (McCormick), Sterling, Maddox, Ugbo (St Clair), Mount (c), Hudson-Odoi (McEachran)
Subs not Used: Bułka, Guehi
Goals: James, Ugbo