Chelsea’s 2011-12 FA Youth Cup campaign got underway in successful fashion on Wednesday night with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers at Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park.
In keeping with last season’s form in the competition, the Blues went behind to a very early goal but responded well and goals from John Swift and Lucas Piazon – his first for the club – ensured safe passage into the fourth round.
Deprived of captain Daniel Pappoe and impressive schoolboy midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek through injury, coach Adie Viveash handed the armband to Nathaniel Chalobah and moved Brazilian Piazon into the midfield three. Alex Kiwomya took Piazon’s spot on the right of a front three spearheaded by Islam Feruz, scorer of five goals this season.
In the 10-11 campaign, the Blues conceded first minute strikes to both Arsenal and Barnsley in the Youth Cup, and found themselves a goal down in similar circumstances.
A free kick from the right wing was delivered into a decent area but Jamal Blackman failed to collect, instead finding himself in no man’s land allowing defender Liam Wakefield to bury a header into the wide open goal.
It didn’t take long for the hosts to respond though. Picking up the tempo to win back possession, they began to move the ball about well and struck level within five minutes.
Feruz showed quick feet to beat two defenders in the corner of the pitch before cutting the ball back to the far post, where Swift composed himself before lashing home from close range.
With parity duly restored the youngsters set about securing an advantage, but by hook or by crook Doncaster managed to keep the scores level. A fine cross by left-back Adam Nditi had goalkeeper Jon Maxted flapping somewhat, but the lively Feruz was unable to make a connection with the ball.
The Rovers goalkeeper did considerably better moments later to beat away a well-struck effort by the former Celtic schoolboy, who joined Chelsea in September in a controversial cross-border transfer.
At the other end striker Jordan Ball was putting himself about and giving Chalobah and defensive partner Nathan Aké plenty to think about. The Dutchman, however, was in form and making an impact at both ends of the pitch.
His ability to carry the ball out of defence in addition to his passing range allowed Chelsea to play a swift transitional game and he regularly looked for the angled runs of Feruz in behind.
Amin Affane was also playing well out on the left and some impressive close control resulted in a chance for Piazon, but despite arriving on cue his effort was poor and off target.
The two teams went in level at the break as despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and a healthy territorial advantage, Chelsea’s short passing was sloppy by their own high standards and moves were all too often breaking down in the middle of the park.
Kiwomya had struggled to get involved out on the right wing but saw an early piece of second half action come his way as Swift got to the byline and pulled a ball back into the goalmouth, but the 15 year-old couldn’t hook his body around the ball to force an effort on target.
Strike partner Feruz looked the most likely to grab the go-ahead goal with his trademark movement and close dribbling on display all night, and shortly before the hour he forced Maxted into the save of the evening, getting down low to his right to beat away a shot which seemed destined for the back of the net.
The longer the game went on, the more Doncaster were prepared to drop deeper into their own half and force Chelsea to try and play their way through. Their passing had improved a little but it was still inconsistent enough to make it a worthy approach for the visitors.
In an attempt to seize the initiative further, Viveash introduced Archange Nkumu in relief of Kiwomya, who struggled for involvement. A tactical re-shuffle saw captain Chalobah move into midfield and both Piazon and Lewis Baker take up more attacking positions.
Baker immediately fired a shot goalwards but whilst it was on target, it lacked power and Maxted made a routine stop. Feruz was then pulled over on a jinking run unto the box but the referee chose not to award a spot kick.
The game’s decisive moment arrived with a little more than ten minutes left on the clock. A long ball forward caused problems between full-back Jordan Binns and goalscorer Wakefield, allowing Piazon to gather possession some 35 yards out.
He continued forward unchallenged, and having been invited to shoot took full advantage as his effort took a slight deflection en route to beating Maxted.
Full-backs Nditi and Kane – from fully 30 yards – had late efforts to put the tie beyond doubt but the former dragged his effort wide whilst the latter drew yet another superb save from the visiting goalkeeper.
Rovers’ impressive Ball had an overhead kick saved by Blackman whilst a stoppage time corner swung awkwardly back towards goal but the Chelsea stopper was able to palm it onto the crossbar and away to safety.
Chelsea will certaintly play better but they deserved their victory against a spirited Doncaster outfit who left everything on the pitch and caused more than their fair share of worrying moments for the hosts.
Spurred on by impressive displays by Feruz, Swift, Affane and Aké though, the Blues are in the hat for the last 32 of the competition, the draw for which is slated for this coming Friday.
Team: Blackman, Kane, Chalobah (c), Aké, Nditi, Baker, Swift, Piazon, Affane (Seremba 90), Kiwomya (Nkumu 65), Feruz
Subs not Used: Beeney, Gordon, Mitchell
Goals: Swift 6, Piazon 80