For the second year in a row, and the third time in four years, Chelsea have reached the Semi Final stage of the FA Youth Cup.
They did so by beating Watford in the Quarter Finals in consecutive years, and for the third time in as many games this campaign, Dermot Drummy’s team came back from conceding an early goal to wind up 2-1 victors.
The addition of Tomas Kalas to Drummy’s ranks meant a wealth of tactical options were available to Drummy, and he opted for the same shape as was deployed in league action against Ipswich at the weekend.
Kalas partnered captain Daniel Pappoe in the centre of defence, allowing Nathaniel Chalobah – scorer of goals in Rounds Three and Four – to move forward into the midfield anchor role, alongside George Saville.
Josh McEachran and Billy Clifford were both afforded something of a ‘free’ role, roaming in attacking space to create chances for the forward duo of Bobby Devyne and Milan Lalkovic.
Watford featured a highly-rated foward line of Sean Murray and Gavin Massey, but Chelsea were on the front foot from the off, and had a fine chance to open the scoring when McEachran’s through ball released Lalkovic, but the Slovakian curled his shot wide of the far post.
Todd Kane was the first to force a save from goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, but despite a bright start from the hosts, they gave up the opening goal once again.
A seemingly innocuous attack from Watford appeared to have fizzled out, but Chelsea made a hash of clearing the ball, being afforded plenty of opportunities to do so.
The ball fell to Murray on the edge of the box, and the player who grabbed a sensational brace away to Fulham to set up a visit to Stamford Bridge coolly drilled a low shot past Jamal Blackman into the bottom corner.
However, this was hardly new territory for the home team, and they couldn’t have appeared less fazed by the goal. They did have to stay alert though, and almost conceded a second when Blackman dropped Murray’s long-range effort, but the goalkeeper was able to scramble back and keep the ball from going over the line.
Chelsea had forced a succession of corners in the opening twenty minutes but the delivery was poor. As usual, the Blues were a smaller side than their opponents, but even with Pappoe to aim for, they were unable to cause Watford any great worries from their set pieces.
Whilst they had the upper hand in terms of possession, it was the Hornets who looked more dangerous when presented with goalscoring opportunities. Right-back Matthew Bevans skipped past Deen-Conteh and advanced into the box. He drilled across the face of goal and found Murray at the far post, but a brave block from Saville forced the ball behind for a corner.
After an up-tempo opening, Chelsea looked to have fizzled out as the half went on, with tame efforts dealt with comfortably by Bond from both Clifford and Lalkovic.
There was a scary moment approaching half time when Devyne went flying over the advertising hoardings and crashed into the front row of supporters in the East Lower stand, but after dusting himself off, he returned to the field of play, and would quickly make a different sort of impact.
A controversial corner was awarded in first half stoppage time, with Watford claiming that the final touch had come off a blue shirt. Clifford’s delivery was low to the near post, where Devyne ran to flick it on.
The header looped high in the air and landed inside the far post for the equaliser. It was certainly not intended, but it was just about deserved and ensured the two teams went in even on the scoreboard.
Perhaps buoyed by Devyne’s goal, the start of the second half signalled another spell of pressure from the home team, often led by marauding runs from Deen-Conteh. The England Under-19 international found himself in the opposition box, but his delivery was neither shot nor cross and bobbled across the face of goal.
Chelsea needed someone to take control of things, and that was to be Billy Clifford. Working well in tandem with McEachran, he began to pick up the ball in space, playing between the lines, and running at Watford’s defenders.
In one move between the duo, they carved out a glorious opening, only for Clifford’s shot to strike the hand of the closing defender. Amidst appeals from players and fans alike, the referee pointed to the spot for a penalty.
Clifford wanted to take it himself, but was turned away by Lalkovic, who took on the responsibility. His run-up was confident, and he sent Bond the wrong way, but missed the target high and wide.
Fresh legs were introduced shortly after the hour in the form of schoolboy Adam Nditi, with Devyne making way, and he joined what had now become a rampant team intent on finding the go-ahead goal.
In the space of a minute Bond saved first from Clifford before beating away a fierce drive from a visibly frustrated Lalkovic, with Nditi shooting over shortly afterwards.
Clifford’s attempted shot with the outside of his foot after more useful work from Deen-Conteh curled over, and he was involved again moments later when McEachran released Lalkovic.
One on one with the goalkeeper, he was denied by Bond, with the rebound falling to Clifford. The goal at his mercy, he was denied by a last-ditch block from Thomas Hoban, who was extremely impressive on the night for Watford.
With less than ten minutes to go, and extra time looming again, Chelsea found another late winner. McEachran released Clifford down the right, and despite a lack of support, he drove the ball across the face of goal.
It struck defender Adam Fenwick on the leg and cruelly spun past Bond and into the back of the net. It was the least the Blues deserved, but an unlucky way for Watford to exit the competition.
They had chances to take the game into an additional period, particularly when substitute Dereece Gardner fluffed a header at the far post with the goal gaping, but the four minutes of stoppage time saw Chelsea threaten to add a third on the break.
It didn’t come, but it didn’t need to. The final whistle was greeted victoriously, with the club becoming the first to confirm their place in the final four. They will face either Liverpool or Manchester United in a two-legged affair, with the opponent to be known when they clash on March 13th.
This was a strong all-round display with impressive outings from McEachran, Kane and Pappoe, but led by Man of the Match Clifford. He created both goals and provided the attacking impetus needed in the second half, and has proven himself integral to this team’s chances of success.
Watford did themselves and their academy proud, looking good at the back for long spells and threatening enough with athleticism on the break. Yet they appeared to play within themselves, perhaps daunted by their opposition, and may regret that.
Chelsea will have few regrets though, as the defence of their crown goes on for one more round.
Team: Blackman, Kane, Kalas, Pappoe (c), Deen-Conteh, Chalobah, Saville (Ince 90), McEachran, Clifford, Devyne (Nditi 62), Lalkovic
Goals: Devyne ’45, Fenwick og ’82
Full match gallery courtesy of Dan Davies here; http://ow.ly/46N01