An FA Youth Cup is rarely won in the first leg, but Chelsea put themselves in a strong position to claim an historic fifth successive title as they came from behind to beat Arsenal 3-1 in their opening stand-off at Stamford Bridge on Friday night.
Jody Morris’ youngsters were the better team for the majority of the match, but they were guilty of several egregious misses in a first half that eventually saw them fall behind, Arsenal stealing a lead through Xavier Amaechi. The Gunners themselves looked sharp in spells but, as the contest went on, their weaknesses became exposed and a brace from substitute Daishawn Redan either side of Marc Guehi’s ninth goal of the season set up a two-goal lead for them to take to the Emiratest Stadium on Monday.
Dan Davies’ always excellent match gallery is available HERE.
Morris kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 shape that has served his team so well of late, but made three interesting personnel choices, starting with Tariq Lamptey, Jonathan Panzo and Charlie Brown instead of Dujon Sterling, Juan Castillo and Redan. They were all worthy choices, and Lamptey in particular was involved early and often as he got forward to good effect on the Blues’ right.
Crosses rained in from both sides of the pitch as Arsenal were pressed back into defending their own penalty area, and it was more by luck than judgement that they were able to stay on terms. Brown should have opened the scoring when George McEachran took down Reece James’ searching long pass with a first-time lay-off to the striker, but he planted it wide off his weaker right foot, and immediately knew how big the miss could have been over the course of the tie.
Able to settle down after a testing first ten minutes, the visitors began to show that they too had plenty of attacking firepower. Amaechi beat Lamptey with ease before seeing his cross come back to him, whereupon he fired low and hard at goal and drew a good save from Jamie Cumming. Emile Smith-Rowe then found more space down the Arsenal left but Guehi was able to get to his cutback before Tyreece John-Jules could apply the finish.
Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was in much livelier form than the pale shadow of his usual self that took to the field for the Under-19s in Nyon last weekend, drew a flying save from Joao Virginia with a free kick he won himself, and Tariq Uwakwe twice swung and missed at chances arriving from the left as Chelsea continued to waste opportunities. Morris has often warned them of the consequences of their profligacy, and Amaechi duly made them pay with the opener ten minutes before half time when he collected Smith-Rowe’s ball inside Lamptey and chipped a confident finish over the onrushing Cumming and into the back of the net.
It was the first goal Chelsea had conceded in their Youth Cup campaign all season and it served as a wake-up call. Uwakwe’s frustrating continued with another shot straight at Virginia, and he wouldn’t emerge for the second half, as Morris introduced Dujon Sterling to stretch the pitch wider than it had been in the first 45 minutes.
That in turn allowed Hudson-Odoi a bit more space to operate in, with Panzo getting up in support more regularly, but the England youth duo rarely found synergy on a night of almost for both of them. In need of a spark, Redan replaced the luckless Brown after an hour, and the match would soon swing back towards Chelsea. It took him just six minutes to announce his arrival in style, racing away after brilliant play by McEachran to release him, before slotting a finish under Virginia to make it 1-1 and spark scenes of celebration amongst the healthy crowd in attendance.
With the momentum on their side, and with Arsenal visibly wilting under pressure, this time they made their superiority count. With twelve minutes remaining, a set piece wasn’t fully cleared, allowing Chelsea’s centre-backs to combine to give them the lead their efforts had deserved. Reece James’ cross was typically excellent, and Guehi was on hand at the far post to score against Arsenal for the second time this season, leaving him one short of double figures overall in what has been a tremendous year for him on a personal level.
Kwame Ampadu, the Arsenal manager and father of Ethan Ampadu, had earlier taken off the influential Smith-Rowe with Monday’s return game in mind, but he was slow to react to his players’ continuing physical struggles. Centre-backs Zech Medley and Daniel Ballard were visibly struggling with cramp, but were allowed to continue, a decision that could ultimately prove very costly when looking back over the final. There were just four minutes left when Juan Castillo – injecting fresh impetus from Chelsea’s bench in constrast – went down the right and crossed towards goal, where Medley was unable to clear, and Redan pounced with an instinctive finish slammed home for 3-1, and a crucial two-goal lead.
It could have been three had Redan completed his hat-trick in stoppage time; McEachran danced his way through in style at the end of another fine display, but this time the Dutchman skied high over the bar to leave his team thinking of what could have been. Had they taken even a few more of their chances on the night, they would already be out of sight, but they head across London the other side of this weekend knowing they’re one step closer to retaining the FA Youth Cup once again.
Chelsea: Cumming, Lamptey (Castillo 85), James ©, Guehi, Panzo, Gallagher, Uwakwe (Sterling 45), Gilmour, Brown (Redan 61), McEachran, Hudson-Odoi
Subs not Used: Ziger, Anjorin
Goals: Redan ’67, ’86, Guehi ‘78
Arsenal: Virginia, Daley-Campbell, Thompson, Burton, Ballard ©, Medley (Olowu 88), Olayinka, Smith (Saka 67), John-Jules, Smith-Rowe (Coyle 62), Amaechi
Subs not Used: Omole, Barden
Goal: Amaechi ‘36