If ever a match could be described as a cagey affair, whilst simultaneously being played at breakneck pace and featuring numerous chances, then it was this first leg of the latest instalment of the Manchester City vs Chelsea FA Youth Cup franchise.
In the opening gambit of the third year in a row in which the country’s two leading academies go head-to-head in the Under-18 showpiece occasion, it’s very much all to play for next Wednesday at Stamford Bridge after a second-half goal from Phil Foden cancelled out Iké Ugbo’s opener for a Chelsea side that will feel that they could, and probably should, have come away from the City Academy Stadium with more to show for their efforts.
The holders dominated large portions of the game, created by far the better chances, and generally looked a more composed and assured outfit than their hosts, who are bidding to finally get over the hurdle they’ve fallen at in each of their previous two campaigns. Yet, for all the Chelsea dominance, their season-long problem of not converting opportunities into goals came back to frustrate them again, and although they’ll be confident going into the return leg on home turf at Stamford Bridge, City offered plenty of reminders of their capabilities.
Eighteen of the twenty-two players that started the match were eligible to represent England, with all bar one of those already having done so at youth level (Matt Smith, the one who hasn’t, instead plays for Wales). City were minus their injured captain Joel Latibeaudiere and were forced to utilise midfielder Sadou Diallo at centre-back, whilst Chelsea lost the services of Josh Grant in their own back three, with Marc Guehi his able deputy on this occasion.
Jared Thompson, the more experienced of the goalkeepers available to manager Jody Morris, twice misplaced early clearances, perfectly illustrating the nerves of the occasion that were readily apparent on both sides, but it was Chelsea, proven commodities on this stage, who settled themselves first and began to have some fun. Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi buzzed around in free attacking roles, with City unable to keep track of them.
They exchanged nearly-moments for most of the opening half an hour; Hudson-Odoi extending Arijanet Muric to the full extremities of his 6’4” frame, Mount rather less so from a similar position, and there were plenty of moments where they were a touch away from a clear opening, but City kept them at bay. Ugbo had a shot blocked after Dujon Sterling had made good ground on the right, but the longer they went without capitalising, the greater the risk of being caught on the break was.
And City duly proved that; Brahim Diaz came to life with a delicious slide-rule ball to set competition top scorer Lukas Nmecha on his way only for the post to come to Chelsea’s rescue. He had a chance to make amends shortly afterwards, but this time lashed well over the bar, much to the frustration of the watching Pep Guardiola.
It was Chelsea’s half though, and after twice more going close without reward – including one that came back off the post themselves – they opened the scoring in the final minute of first half play. Hudson-Odoi was the catalyst again, leaving two sky blue shirts in his wake before Muric denied him, pushing his effort onto the other post this time, but the schoolboy forward stayed sharp, collected the rebound, and found Ugbo for a simple but emphatic finish from six yards out.
It could have been a vastly different picture going into the break had Diaz, Ugbo, or Jadon Sancho scored during a frenetic to-and-fro – Sancho’s miss the most egregious – but Chelsea held onto their narrow advantage and should have extended it early in the second half too, Sterling and Mount not doing enough from good positions, whilst Muric was fortunate not to fumble a cross straight into the lap of the Chelsea skipper.
That City had so many quality attacking options with which to conjure an equaliser will have made it all the more frustrating for Morris that it was his charges that handed it to them on a plate. Sterling went down under duress from behind, not enough for a foul to be awarded, and Foden simply strode into the vast, vacant expanses of a retreating rearguard, gleefully steering his shot past Thompson to bring things back together at 1-1.
From there, they looked the more likely to wind up winners on the night. The pace and intensity of the game was as high as it gets at this level of football and it clearly took its toll on the participants as the closing stages drew in, but still Chelsea came at their hosts. Mount and Hudson-Odoi continued their own personal duels against Muric without reward, and their defence – individually superb but expertly marshalled by Trevoh Chalobah – ensured they would go into the second leg on terms.
Tickets remain on sale for the decider at Stamford Bridge, priced at £5 for adults and £3 for concessions, and it will be to a finish on the night. Away goals do not come into the reckoning but, based on the first 90 minutes of the tie, there will be plenty of incident one way or another.
Manchester City: Muric, Duhaney, Diallo, Francis ©, Wilson, Davenport, Diaz, Smith, Nmecha, Foden (Bolton 84), Sancho (Dele-Bashiru 90)
Subs not Used: Frimpong, Sokol, Gonzalez
Chelsea: Thompson, James, T.Chalobah, Guehi, Castillo, Uwakwe (Gallagher 90), Sterling, Maddox, Ugbo (St Clair 85), Mount ©, Hudson-Odoi
Subs not Used: Colley, Cumming, C.Dasilva