Chelsea will play in their second FA Youth Cup Final in three seasons after besting Manchester United 3-2 on aggregate over two keenly-fought Semi Final contests.
A second half strike from Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon earned the Blues a draw on the night after Jack Barmby’s first half opener and ensured that Adi Viveash’s boys progressed to the Final against Blackburn.
United came with the intention to leave everything they had on the pitch and were much improved from a below-par first leg, but tired towards the end and the fresher legs of the home team were enough to see them home.
Whereas Chelsea had chosen to rest their players for as long as two weeks in many cases, the Reds have only just returned from an Under-17 tournament in the Netherlands, one which deprived them of first leg goalscorer James Wilson through injury.
Sam Byrne played up front in his stead, whilst Joe Rothwell was able to return to the midfield after missing the match at Old Trafford. Jack Rudge made way in a like-for-like swap.
Chelsea were unchanged but whilst they dominated the opening twenty minutes a month ago, they were on the back foot early as the visitors made good on their intentions to start well and forced the pace in the first ten minutes.
Rothwell was straight into the action, firing a long range effort over Jamal Blackman’s crossbar. Chelsea responded in kind when Amin Affane’s poor corner found its way to Alex Davey, but the defender found the upper sections of the Shed End.
The early sighters continued as Todd Kane stung the hands of Jonny Sutherland from well outside the box but whilst the United goalkeeper had made the game’s first save, Blackman would quickly become the busier of the two stoppers.
In a short space of time he first did well to intercept a cross destined for the head of centre forward Byrne, before getting down well to steer Barmby’s low shot away for a corner. From the ensuing delivery, he acrobatically beat away Rothwell’s left-footed curler.
Chelsea had lacked possession in the first twenty minutes and looked to make amends by keeping the ball for the sake of possession and to start playing on their terms. It worked too, as they got a foothold in the game and began to probe.
Adam Nditi had been involved in most of the play and the left-back went closest to opening the scoring when he showed good skill to come inside and shoot. Sutherland spilled his effort but was able to recover before the ball rolled over the line.
The stakes were undoubtedly high and one or two individuals were playing close to the edge. Piazon and Ben Pearson had one or two niggly moments together, with Piazon lashing out in tame fashion. The pair were spoken to by the referee, who was keen to put an end to the handbags.
Chalobah and Barmby exchanged half-chances which failed to materialise, whilst Piazon and Baker then went close to putting Chelsea in the ascendancy. Some ten minutes before half time, however, United grabbed the lead and restored parity on aggregate.
Tyler Blackett dribbled in from the left and used his ample frame to hold the ball up and defenders off. Chelsea were unable to clear and allowed Mats Daehli to find Barmby, who drilled home from the left side of the box. His shot was well struck but took a deflection off Todd Kane before beating Blackman.
A quick flurry of yellow cards rounded out a breathless first half as Nditi and Pearson both had their names taken for persistent infringements as much as anything.
Chelsea’s approach didn’t change a great deal in the second half, with no overall deficit to haul back, but they did look to involve Islam Feruz more. Moments after the restart Davey looked to release the frontman with a through ball but the impressive Nick Ioannou swept up comfortably.
With United defending well and retaining their shape it was most commonly a piece of dribbling which opened space for the Blues. Affane was next to chance his arm, jinking inside and working room for a shot which was eventually dragged wide of the left post.
The visitors responded well though and nearly took an overall lead through Pearson, but Blackman was on hand to save the day again. The chance had come about in a similar manner to the goal, with the Blues unable to clear their lines in a congested area.
Piazon, by far the liveliest Chelsea player, had seen more and more of the ball and was taking players on for fun, but sights of goal were few and far between.
His team were lucky to still be in the game around the hour mark though, when Liam Grimshaw found himself in nosebleed territory and produced a defender’s finish when well placed.
Alex Kiwomya entered the fray moments later, replacing Affane, who had worked hard without much reward.
He lined up on the right of the front three but it was Piazon who everything was going through, and shortly after he’d seen another shot saved by Sutherland, he got his reward with the equaliser.
Feruz showed excellent agility and balance to turn his man on the halfway line and took off towards goal. He drew the defence towards him before slipping the ball wide for Piazon, who lashed home first time into the roof of the net.
It energised the players and the crowd and they immediately went within inches of scoring again as Kane and Kiwomya combined to set up Feruz, who saw his shot take a nick off Pearson before clipping the crossbar.
Feruz and Piazon had opportunities to extend the aggregate lead but were unable to take them. Right back Kane had grown in influence throughout the match and had picked his moments to get forward expertly, impacting proceedings exactly when required.
United, needing to take a chance, gambled on the fitness of Wilson and introduced him from the bench with fifteen minutes or so remaining.
They were bound to get a look and when they did, it fell to top scorer Barmby. He worked himself some space on the edge of the box and let fly, beating Blackman but watched as his effort rolled the wrong side of the post.
Other than that, Chelsea looked comfortable in the late stages, with Feruz and Kiwomya doggedly and diligently working hard up front and Swift covering every inch of turf in the midfield. He would be replaced with moments to go and earned a standing ovation for his performance.
The Blues held onto their draw and won the tie on aggregate to set up a two-legged date with Blackburn Rovers, who were the club’s opponents in the Semi Finals in 2009-10 and in last year’s Premier Reserve League Final.
The first leg will be played at Stamford Bridge next Friday, April 20th, with a 7pm kickoff. Tickets will go on sale on Monday morning.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane, Davey, Aké, Nditi, Chalobah (c), Swift (Nkumu 90), Baker, Affane (Kiwomya 60), Piazon, Feruz
Subs not Used: Beeney, Nortey, Mitchell
Manchester United: Sutherland, Grimshaw, McCullough, Ioannou, Blackett, Pearson, Rothwell, Daehli (Rudge 80), Barmby, Van Velzen, Byrne (Wilson 77)
Subs not Used: Jacob, Ekangamene, Hendrie
Goals: Piazon (CFC), Barmby (MUFC)
Booked: Nditi (CFC), Pearson, Blackett, Ioannou (MUFC)