Last season’s FA Youth Cup run ended with a dramatic late winner in front of a healthy crowd at Stamford Bridge.
Some things don’t change. In front of over 7,000 fans at the home of the English Champions and defending Youth Cup holders, a brace from Milan Lalkovic – including a stoppage time winner – ensured that the Blues will continue their defence of the trophy for at least one more round, defeating Arsenal in the process.
With only a week between winning at Sunderland in the previous round and the clash against the Gunners, preparation time was minimal, with much of the pre-match talk surrounding the inclusion of Josh McEachran in Dermot Drummy’s plans.
The seventeen year-old was one of two changes from last week’s tie, as he and Ben Sampayo replaced Archange Nkumu and Anton Rodgers. Sampayo played at right back, freeing Billy Clifford to play in midfield, with George Saville taking over the anchor role in the centre of the pitch.
Arsenal’s main selection dilemma surrounded the availability of Benik Afobe, who picked up a knee injury during his loan spell at Huddersfield Town. He passed a late fitness test and lined up in attack, with Jernade Meade returning on the flank.
With a wealth of centre-backs to choose from, Steve Bould selected Ignasi Miquel and Sead Hajrovic, a decision which would have a huge impact upon proceedings.
It took less than two minutes for the visitors to take the lead and silence the home crowd. An early corner was earned in front of an empty Matthew Harding Stand, and it was poorly defended. Hajrovic rose to challenge for the ball but it found its way into the back of the net off of Clifford for an own goal.
Nonetheless, Chelsea responded well and forced Argentinian goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into his first save of what would be a busy night for him. A long ball over the top released Milan Lalkovic, who beat Hajrovic for pace but saw his effort turned away for a corner.
Clearly stung by conceding an early goal, the young Blues sought to restore parity as quickly as possible, but lacked a little bit of luck and some cutting edge. Lalkovic did well on the other flank minutes later and pulled a dangerous ball across the face of goal, but Todd Kane was unable to arrive to put the finishing touches on the move.
Arsenal weathered a brief storm and began to get a foothold in the game, keeping possession well and searching out Afobe in the channels. When the England Under-19 forward was static he was marked by Daniel Pappoe, but whenever he looked to make a move, it was Nathaniel Chalobah who would shadow arguably the best player on the pitch.
Indeed, the two were involved in a contentious moment when Afobe broke into the box and appeared to have a step on his schoolboy marker, but Chalobah recovered with an excellent sliding tackle. Appeals for a penalty were not particularly vociferous and fell on deaf ears.
However, it continued to look as if Chelsea were the more likely to score the next goal, and they continued to plug away. Miquel was forced to clear from almost underneath his own crossbar following a fierce cross from Kane, and when the ball did eventually find its way over the line, Clifford was flagged offside from a set piece.
Meade and full-back Daniel Boateng had bright moments for the visitors at the other end but they were few and far between, with Martinez easily the busier goalkeeper. He pulled off a quite breathtaking save to deny a goalbound header from Pappoe with a strong right arm to prise it away from the top corner.
Further goalmouth scrambles ensued and Bobby Devyne will have been disappointed not to find the back of the bet, but the game was to take a sour turn shortly after the half hour mark after a collision between Saville and Nico Yennaris.
The ball broke for a fifty-fifty challenge and Saville arrived a split second late, an innocuous collision with no dangerous play involved. Unfortunately, Yennaris came off badly and suffered a suspected broken ankle. Josh Rees replaced him in the centre of midfield.
Lalkovic and McEachran both put efforts inches wide of Martinez’ left hand post before the half time whilst, whilst hearts were in blue mouths as Aziz Deen-Conteh almost turned the ball into his own net following a wonderful cross from the lively Meade.
Chalobah’s goalline clearance from Afobe’s effort ended the first period with no further goals, but no lack of action in the attacking third. This came despite each team’s main playmaker being duly shackled throughout the match.
Both McEachran and Chuks Aneke have the ability to change a game in an instant, but both managers clearly recognised this and ensured that neither were afforded time to settle on the ball. McEachran’s greater mobility and elusiveness had kept him more involved, but there had been little impact from those donning the number ten shirts.
Aneke did start the second half with a header which looped over Jamal Blackman’s goal, but it didn’t take long for the Blues to finally get the goal they had been searching for.
A simple looking backpass headed towards Miquel, who seemed content to let it run to his goalkeeper. However, his approach was far too casual, and with indecision reigning in the Arsenal ranks, Lalkovic seized upon the loose ball and tucked it away into the back of the net with great composure.
Tails were now well and truly up and if Devyne’s left foot had been up to the task, a second goal would have arrived within minutes. Instead, the effort was tame and easily saved.
Manager Drummy then decided to begin shuffling his pack. Adam Nditi was introduced in relief of Sampayo, resulting in some positional re-jigging. Kane moved to right back and Devyne swapped wings to allow the left-footed Tanzanian to play on his natural side.
The flow of the game continued to go Chelsea’s way, with Lalkovic again missing the target by fine margins, whilst Arsenal’s main outlet was the ball into the channel to find Afobe.
Undoubtedly a potent threat on his day, he was clearly well below match fitness and played with a heavy dressing on his injured knee, but was also kept in check for the most part by Chalobah, who displayed impressive agility and tackling to keep his man away from the goal.
As time went on, more and more of the game was being played in the Arsenal half, and Devyne, Clifford and Saville will all have been disappointed not to add their names to the scoresheet, with Martinez proving to be an excellent last line of defence.
A potentially controversial moment came about when Kane fell over in possession suffering from cramp, ceding the ball to Meade, who carried it unchallenged into the penalty area. Chelsea were able to clear and avoid what would have been a contentious goal, but Kane was forced to make way for Anton Rodgers.
Bould made his first change with fifteen minutes to go, Martin Angha replacing Hajrovic, who had been tormented for much of the evening, and with time running out, the hosts appeared to be tiring. With more attacking substitutes in his pocket, the Arsenal manager looked to be playing for extra time, where fresher legs could have proved to be the deciding factor.
The game didn’t get to that stage.
A minute into the four added on for stoppages, Nditi battled well for possession and jinked his way into the box. Confident enough to lift his head and consider his options, he opted for a simple pass inside to Lalkovic.
The Slovakian kept a cool head at the most crucial of times, faking a shot on his right foot before drilling a low left-footed effort into the bottom corner.
Cue bedlam. Chelsea celebrated wildly whilst the Arsenal boys looked shellshocked. Archange Nkumu replaced the two-goal hero with a time-wasting third substitution but the game was up, and the holders live to fight another round.
The performance and result stands out as one of the more impressive in recent times. A team which, on paper at least, falls short of the strength of the 2009-10 winning team faced a tougher opponent than in any round last season and not only came out on top, but deserved to as well.
Chalobah, the youngest player on the pitch, was excellent throughout, as was Saville in midfield. Lalkovic had one of his best games in a blue shirt, leading the line with good defensive work and no shortage of efforts at goal, and was rewarded handsomely.
For Arsenal, Martinez was outstanding for the second time against Chelsea this season, whilst the likes of Boateng, Meade and Afobe were useful in fits and spurts. Many, however, will be disappointed with their performances when it mattered the most.
Chelsea’s fifth round opponent is yet to be decided, but will be one from Barnsley, Hull, and Rushden & Diamonds, and will be at Stamford Bridge on a date to be confirmed.
Don’t miss it.
Team: Blackman, Sampayo (Nditi 58), Pappoe (c), Chalobah, Deen-Conteh, Saville, Clifford, McEachran, Kane (Rodgers 73), Devyne, Lalkovic (Nkumu 90)
Subs Not Used: Tomlinson, Stenning
Goals: Lalkovic 49, 90
You can follow Dan on Twitter @DD_Photo