On a day where they had watched fellow English clubs Tottenham and Manchester United defeated in their pursuit of the UEFA Youth League, some Chelsea players might have feared that they too would fall by the wayside. After all, things come in threes, according to lore.
Or perhaps they don’t. The Blues had lost just four times in 43 outings in the competition dating back to its inception 2013, one more than all other Premier League sides had managed this week, following Liverpool’s exit on penalties yesterday. Against Montpellier, Joe Edwards’ side were well short of their best, but they dug deep into their well of resolve and fortitude, and emerged victorious yet again.
The academy’s historic FA Youth Cup run came to an end in December but, as it did, it offered the chance to take stock of just how unlikely such a run is. Today presented an opportunity to reinforce those ideas; knockout football is unforgiving, it regularly makes fools of favourites, and even at the very highest levels it’s almost impossible to be as hard to beat as Chelsea have been this decade.
They had to draw upon every ounce of their experience and nous in this one at Cobham though. Montpellier top the French Under-19 league and flashed their credentials in the previous round by getting past Benfica, a perennial contender and a noted influential youth system in world football. They came with a game plan and made no apologies for it; direct, in-your-face and with no little gamesmanship, they presented as tough an outing as the Blues have faced in recent years.
Perhaps it’s French clubs in general. Monaco were seen off on the same pitch three weeks earlier, but only after plenty of scares and only after three sensational goals, while the 2015-16 Final against Paris Saint-Germain lives long in the memory for the dogged and determined defensive performance by Adi Viveash’s boys. Teams from across the channel always give you a game and a half.
Karlo Žiger, in goal because Jamie Cumming was both unwell and the odd man out among overage players, was by far the busier stopper and was required to make a string of saves, surely none better than the flying one-handed parry to deny the impressive Bastian Badu. He was rescued by Marc Guehi’s brave last-ditch clearance from the rebound, but he had earned that intervention, while Guehi himself was a colossus as the last line of defence against a French onslaught.
Edwards and assistant Ed Brand will have expected this sort of match, and so will their players, but they won’t have foreseen such a shaky and inconsistent display. Still, they didn’t panic and fought their ground, even against some questionable refereeing that should have seen Thibaut Tamas sent off before half time, and were eventually rewarded in the closing stages with what looked like being the winning goal.
Juan Castillo popped up with it, tapping in from a rebound having only swapped flanks minutes earlier, but it owed much to Luke McCormick’s relentless enthusiasm. The Chelsea captain was making his first appearance in the Youth League this term, having been sidelined for much of it with a stress fracture of the back, and Edwards was glowing about his midfield leader after his return to the squad last week. Here, his endeavour to run at the away defence late in a game that had no sympathy for tired legs paid dividends, or so he thought.
The lead was meekly surrendered five minutes later. A soft foul was given against Billy Gilmour, who always offered himself to the home cause, allowing Amir Adouyev to size up another dead-ball opportunity. His quality from such situations had been on show throughout, and with the game on the line, his cross was poked in by defender Samy Benchama, although questions must be asked about the Chelsea defending.
Could they go again? Of course they could. Conor Gallagher’s high and looping cross initially appeared to have been over-hit, but it found the unmarked McCormick lurking in space, and however awkward it looked, however he connected, the volley was nursed into the far bottom corner. 2-1 Chelsea, and ten minutes to hold on, a task this time they were able to see out.
The reward is a Quarter Final against Dinamo Zagreb, a club they were meant to face in Nyon’s Semi Final stageback in 2016, only for the Croatians to be kicked out by UEFA for fielding an ineligible player. A successful negotiation of that last eight tie will see them return to Switzerland again, where they would face either Barcelona – the team that beat them in last year’s Final – or Lyon, another Gallic outfit to test their mettle against.
If they add a third Lennart Johansson Trophy to their honours list, they’ll deserve it.
Chelsea: Žiger, Lamptey, Colley, Guehi, Nartey, Gilmour, Gallagher, McEachran (Mola 88), Brown (Redan 66), McCormick ©, Castillo
Subs not Used: Tié, Lawrence, Lavinier, Nunn
Goals: Castillo ’73, McCormick ‘81
Booked: Gallagher, Gilmour, Žiger, Guehi
Montpellier: Ichalalen, Vargas, Tamas, Vidal ©, Benchama, Caumet, Badu (Kasongo 70), Chotard (Ghilas 86), Vercruysse (Wahi 83), Adouyev, Robert
Subs not Used: Morales, Cidolit, Boudersa, Cozzella
Goal: Benchama ‘78
Booked: Tamas, Vidal, Vargas