For the second year in a row, Chelsea left Nyon empty-handed, their pursuit of a third UEFA Youth League title unsuccessful at the last.
The bitter disappointment of last year’s capitulation to Barcelona will fade into exhausted regret this time around. Twelve months ago, they didn’t do themselves justice, and they knew it. This season, they will themselves to the Final again, leading for just nine minutes of knockout round football but finding a way to get the job done. Somehow, some way, they gave themselves a shot of making amends.
At the end of Monday’s 3-1 defeat to FC Porto, though, they had nothing left. It was appropriate that the last match of their run felt like so many of those that have preceded it; they were asked to come from behind and answered the call, only to lose that parity just as quickly as they’d found it. Perhaps it was a case of having nothing left in the tank after putting so much into beating Barcelona three days earlier, or it might just have been that they’d used up all their luck, but it wasn’t their day.
Porto deserved to lift the Lennart Johansson Trophy come full time, although in such a topsy-turvy game, either team could have won in a game of ‘last scorer wins’. Chelsea spurned two glorious openings inside the first ten minutes, openings created by Tariq Lamptey, forcing the Portuguese to make a smart and immediate adjustment to cut off the supply to his flank.
Having ducked and weaved their way through the early haymakers thrown by the team in yellow, Porto puffed out their collective chests and showed that they, too, were up for the fight. Fábio Silva should have done better with an open goal after rounding Karlo Žiger, scuffing his shot at the end, but Pedro Vieira made no mistake in converting from Angel Torres’ cross three minutes later. Game on.
There was no need for Chelsea to panic at this stage; after all, they’d been here before, and had already shown the capacity to work openings against this opponent. A succession of corners proved fruitless against the most experienced defensive core this competition has ever seen – goalkeeper Diogo Costa was playing his record 27th UEFA Youth League match, while centre-backs Diogo Leite and Diogo Queiros – both 20 years of age – are mainstays of a mid-tabe Porto B in the second tier of Portugal’s professional league structure.
Conor Gallagher, willing as ever but finding the fates conspiring against him all afternoon, waited just too long before pulling the trigger on a late first-half chance, but captain Luke McCormick will almost certainly want a second go at his opportunity to bring the scores level two minutes before half time; forced onto his weaker foot, he couldn’t lift the ball over the imposing frame of Costa in front of him.
With the second half came the elusive equaliser, but rather than go on to win, Chelsea fell to their own achilles’ heel once more. Juan Castillo’s lusty swing of his left foot delivered a cross that nobody was prepared for, except Daishawn Redan, who headed into an unguarded goal left when Costa went walkabouts. Game on again.
Except it wasn’t. On Friday, Barcelona went back in front three minutes after Chelsea scored; Porto needed just two. Žiger pulled out a top-drawer save to deny Queirós from a free-kick awarded almost straight from kickoff, but Porto kept the pressure on from the corner, and although the Croatian stopper was alert again to beat out Vieira’s shot, the ball bounced back not once but twice off of Quierós, squirming over the line. 2-1 Porto.
All bets were off now as the match degenerated into a playground battle, as if there were just five minutes left on the clock, rather than the half an hour that did remain. That suited the likes of McCormick, who carried the charge so often, but when he and Castillo weren’t quite on the same page to make good on the fruits of their labour, their shoulders began to drop. Did they really have enough left in the tank to haul themselves level yet again?
The substitutes arrived en masse as the attrition took its toll but, in Chelsea’s case, they might have come too late. Pushing further and further forward, they left themselves exposed at the back, and couldn’t get back quickly enough. Porto’s first replacement, Afonso Sousa, was part of a four-on-three charge that ended with a shot that eluded the unfortunate Žiger to find the bottom corner. 3-1, twelve minutes to go, surely game over.
On came Faustino Anjorin and Charlie Brown for one last hurrah, but their backs were broken. This was one river they couldn’t cross, but they will rise and fight again. Their hopes of returning to the competition next season now rest with Maurizio Sarri’s first team squad and their own UEFA Champions League qualification hopes but, regardless of what happens there, this was the last hurrah for almost everyone on the pitch with a Chelsea badge on their chests. They return home without the trophy they came for but, at least this time around, they can hold their heads high in the knowledge they gave it everything.
FC Porto: Costa, Esteves, Quierós ©, Leite, Lopes, Ndiaye, Torres, Vieira (Ferreira 71), Fábio Silva (Takang 89), Romário Baró (Borges 89), Joao Mário (Sousa 63)
Subs not Used: Meixedo, Matos, Justiniano
Goals: Vieira 17, Queirós 55, Sousa 75
Booked: Vieira, Torres, Ndiaye
Chelsea: Žiger, Lamptey (Brown 78), Colley, Guehi, Maatsen, McEachran, Gallagher (Anjorin 78), Gilmour, Redan, McCormick ©, Castillo
Subs not Used: Tié, Mola, Lavinier, Lawrence, Nunn
Goals: Redan 53
Booked: McCormick, Maatsen