After another FA Youth Cup was added to the trophy cabinet in midweek, attentions turned to the league title for Chelsea’s Under-18s on Saturday, where a 1-0 win at Liverpool kept Jody Morris’ boys on course for the double.
Tariq Uwakwe’s deflected first-half strike proved enough to separate the teams in a scrappy affair where both teams were some way short of their free-flowing best, but the Blues dug in and saw it out, and wins in their final two matches of the season, at home to Arsenal and Reading respectively, will secure a first national Under-18 league title since 1984.
Deprived of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Marc Guehi, George McEachran and Jonathan Panzo due to international duty, Morris was able to call upon other Youth Cup winners in Dujon Sterling, Jacob Maddox and Iké Ugbo for the final away trip of the season, with Sterling used in the middle of the three-man defence rather than in his more recognised attacking role out wide. Ugbo captained the team in a front three also featuring Uwakwe and Harvey St Clair.
Energised by Wednesday’s mauling of Manchester City, it came as no surprise to see Chelsea pick up where they’d left off, and they were ahead within five minutes. Conor Gallagher picked up possession deep in midfield and fed Uwakwe, who came forward unchallenged before unleashing a 30-yard strike that deflected beyond goalkeeper Kamil Grabara via the legs of defender Conor Masterson.
They could have been out of sigh before a quarter of an hour had been played too. Ugbo saw a second disallowed for offside before Uwakwe hooked a volley wide of the far post with Liverpool at sixes and sevens in defence. To their credit, though, Neil Critchley’s side settled down thereafter and began to ask questions of Chelsea at the back, with Bobby Adekanye and Liam Millar giving Jared Thompson something to think about in the visitors’ goal.
Uwakwe was then guilty of a glaring miss to double the Blues’ lead when following up St Clair’s effort, mishitting a shot straight to Grabara with a wide-open goal in front of him, but connected better with his next try, a low skidding effort rippling the side netting from the edge of the area. St Clair went close himself with a similar effort to his earlier parried one but it was once again a case of Chelsea not taking their chances as they went in at the break with a slender advantage.
It was a lead that was questioned several times after half time as Liverpool looked increasingly likely to restore parity. Adam Lewis’ free-kick was well-saved by Thompson before Sterling clearly tripped Okera Simmonds in the area without a penalty being awarded, and it required manful and committed defending from the Blues to keep their single-goal advantage in tact.
Martell Taylor-Crossdale came off the bench to add some much-needed vigour into a tiring attack and twice produced promising moments without reward, yet Liverpool continued to create the better openings. Adekanye was guilty of blazing over the bar when well-placed to convert Millar’s cross, and Simmonds headed over from a typically threatening Lewis dead-ball delivery.
With those chances coming and going without any change to the scoreline, the fight seemed to go out of the hosts in the final ten minutes, and Chelsea came forward more purposefully in an effort to extinguish any doubts about the outcome. Maddox and Cole Dasilva went close in quick succession and another substitute in Luke McCormick saw a sensational volley superbly pushed away by Grabara late on, whilst the best the tiring home team could muster in response was an unconvincing drive from top scorer Glen McAuley.
Arsenal continued to keep up with Chelsea by recording a 5-1 win away to Blackburn, and it will be in their league meeting on Tuesday week at Cobham that will go a long way to determining the destination of the Under-18 Premier League title this season. Arsenal go to Manchester United before that knowing that any slip-ups will make Chelsea’s position even more advantageous, but the Blues know that their destiny remains in their own hands as they seek to end the season on an even bigger high.
Liverpool: Grabara, Sharif, Glennon, Masterson, Johnston, Coyle ©, Adekanye (Camacho 74), Lewis, Simmonds (Longstaff 77), Jones, Millar (McAuley 82)
Subs not Used: B.Williams, R.Williams
Booked: Masterson, Adekanye, Johnston, Lewis
Chelsea: Thompson, James, Sterling, Colley, Castillo, Gallagher, C.Dasilva, Maddox, Ugbo © (McCormick 71), Uwakwe, St Clair (Taylor-Crossdale 54)
Subs not Used: Jameson, Bulka, C.Brown
Goal: Uwakwe ‘4
Booked: Maddox, Sterling