A brace from defender Nathaniel Chalobah and a second half effort from Bobby Devyne gave Chelsea’s youngsters a narrow one-goal lead after a fascinating first leg of their FA Youth Cup Semi Final against Manchester United.
Having trailed at half time, the visitors responded superbly after the break and despite twice staring at a two-goal deficit, rallied to give themselves every chance of a turnaround at Old Trafford in ten days time.
With captain Daniel Pappoe and influential midfielder Billy Clifford missing, coach Dermot Drummy had some selection issues, and chose to pair Tomas Kalas with Chalobah in the heart of the defence, bringing Rohan Ince into the midfield to add some size to the group.
Schoolboy Adam Nditi started on the left wing, with Josh McEachran taking the armband in Pappoe’s absence.
Man Utd were missing key players of their own, most notably top goalscorer John Cofie and the suspended Ravel Morrison, but were able to welcome back forward Will Keane after the best part of three months on the sidelines.
In front of a little over 5,500 fans on a blazing hot Sunday lunchtime at Stamford Bridge, it was a largely quiet opening as both teams looked to meter out their energy over the course of the match, but it was Chelsea who had the first sight of goal when Milan Lalkovic connected with Kalas’ cross, only to be denied by a smart stop from Sam Johnstone.
United’s first effort at goal came courtesy of Keane, who sent a dipping volley over Jamal Blackman’s crossbar from well outside the box.
With Chelsea seizing control of the midfield and rarely being threatened by the lone Man Utd forward, they quickly became the more likely to make the breakthrough.
Left-footed fforts from Lalkovic and Nditi were both mis-hit and easy for Johnstone to gather, whilst Jesse Lingard kept Blackman in business at the other end with a smart effort which required the giant stopper to stretch his ample frame before grasping hold of the ball.
A regular theme of this Cup run has been the ability of Aziz Deen-Conteh to break into the final third, and midway through the first half he was finally able to stretch his legs, knocking the ball past Michael Keane and flying past him before delivering a perfect ball across the face of the goal.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, there was no blue shirt on the end of the cross and Johnstone was able to scramble the ball away.
Shortly before the half hour mark, they found a way through. McEachran’s corner from the right went towards the near post, where Johnstone was anything but convincing in dealing with it. In the ensuing melée, Chalobah found a way through the crowd to bundle the ball over the line.
It was his third goal in the competition after netting against Sunderland and Barnsley, and it took him one clear of Lalkovic for the outright lead as cup top scorer.
Nditi almost added a second minutes later with a glancing header from a McEachran free kick, but the ball spun away from goal and wide of the far post.
The away team were struggling to deal with Chelsea’s set pieces, and from a corner shortly before the break, the hosts added the second goal their play had deserved.
It was George Saville with the delivery from the opposite side, but Chalobah was once again the target, and his glancing header from the near post was directed and weighted perfectly as it dropped into the far corner of the net.
Blackman had to be alert to deny Ryan Tunnicliffe with the final action of the first period but it had been a half controlled by Chelsea, who looked the more likely to score and were firmly in control.
After a pep talk from manager Paul McGuinness, the Reds emerged for the second half with the bit between their teeth and set about exerting their considerable influence on the match. The intimidating physical figures of Paul Pogba and Gyliano van Velzen loomed large as they closed down with a dogged determination, and it forced mistakes from the Blues.
Van Velzen drew the save of the match from Blackman, who managed to claw his effort away from the top corner with his fingertips, and from the following corner, Sean McGinty saw an effort deflected away.
Chelsea were being forced to play in their own third, and as is their preference, they attempted to play their way out of danger rather than clear their lines.
However, with a tiring midfield ahead of them – one already beset by injuries and featuring a regular centre back in Ince – it proved hard work, and resulted in conceding possession to United.
Blackman kept Pogba’s first long-range effort of the day away, but it was delaying the inevitable and as the corner came in, the young goalkeeper was unable to find his way through the crowd, allowing the ball to land kindly for Lingard at the far post.
He swept home confidently into the roof of the net to reduce the arrears and give a sizeable (and vociferous) away following renewed hope.
Drummy immediately introduced Archange Nkumu in relief of Ince, who had barely put ninety minutes of action together since returning from an injury which had sidelined him since November.
Nkumu himself is a natural central defender, with occasional experience in midfield, but was asked to play slightly higher up than he has been used to. The experiment had been trialied in recent Under-18 action, and was a necessity with the number of injuries suffered to the group.
Schoolboy Lewis Baker was also brought on for Nditi, who had shown excellent commitment in his defensive responsibilities, and within moments the pair were involved in the game’s fourth goal.
They both combined to release Deen-Conteh down the left, and once again he got in behind his man and delivered a cross. With McEachran taking a man away towards the near post, it allowed Devyne to arrive completely unmarked at the far post to slot home and make it 3-1.
Unfortunately, the two-goal cushion didn’t last very long. Saville picked up a booking for a mistimed challenge, and Blackman made a brave save from close range to keep Pogba out yet again, but the Frenchman is regularly amongst the goals and with a quarter of an hour to go rose the highest to meet Lingard’s cross and nod past the beleaguered Chelsea stopper.
Larnell Cole and then Tunnicliffe both had efforts miss the target as United sought an equaliser but the heat had sapped the energy of almost everyone on the pitch and in the closing stages Ben Sampayo, Tom Lawrence and Mats Daehli were all thrown on for weary legs.
Chelsea were content to see the clock out in possession and ensure that they would be able to take a lead to Old Trafford on Wednesday week, and whilst they will be disappointed not to have held onto the two-goal lead, it’s nonetheless a favourable position to be in.
It was also a strong team performance, with great desire and commitment shown throughout. Wingers Nditi and Devyne were disciplined in their defensive duties and the defensive triangle of Kalas, Chalobah and Saville played superbly, with goalscorer Chalobah the Man of the Match for his excellence at both ends of the pitch.
Lalkovic had a long battle with Michele Fornasier in which neither gave any ground throughout, whilst Kane and Deen-Conteh both put in strong showings.
If they’re going to join Sheffield United in the competition’s showpiece Final, they’ll need to put in a similar performance away from home. They’re certainly capable, and have the upper hand at half time in the tie.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane, Kalas, Chalobah, Deen-Conteh, Saville, Ince (Nkumu 62), McEachran (c), Nditi (Baker 70), Devyne (Sampayo 85), Lalkovic
Subs Not Used: Tomlinson, Davey
Man Utd: Johnstone, M.Keane, Thorpe, Fornasier, McGinty, Pogba, Tunnicliffe, Cole, Lingard (Lawrence 83), van Velzen, W.Keane (Daehli 88)
Subs Not Used: Coll, Ekangamene, Rudge
Goals: Chalobah ’29, ’42, Devyne ’71; Lingard ’56, Pogba ’75