It’s a case of familiar territory in the Chelsea academy right now as, for the third consecutive season, the club’s junior ranks find themselves in a cup final.
The FA Youth Cup triumph of 2009-10 was followed by last year’s success in the Premier Reserve League, where the Blues overcame Blackburn Rovers at Stamford Bridge.
Rovers are once again the opposition this time around as the Youth Cup returns to centre stage. Chelsea host the first leg at Stamford Bridge this Friday night a week after besting Manchester United 3-2 on aggregate.
Lucas Piazon’s second-half strike proved enough to earn a deserved draw on the night and a successful path through their fourth Semi Final in five year to line up this week’s highly-anticipated clash with Blackburn.
It promises to be a tough pair of matches and should Chelsea get their hands back on the trophy, they will almost certainly have earned it. Whilst Blackburn aren’t the first club that would have come to mind when suggesting potential winners at the competition, it’s important to remember that the reputation of a club’s first team often precedes that of their youth sides, and unfairly so.
En route to beating Aston Villa two years ago, Chelsea beat Rovers over two legs at the Semi Final stage and did so fairly comprehensively, running out 5-0 winners.
Dermot Drummy’s side featured a couple of players who have gone on to become full internationals and others who are regulars in professional football already, but Blackburn included Grant Hanley and Jason Lowe amongst their ranks, two players who have been regularly involved in their battle against relegation this season.
Hanley is one of a number of recent centre-backs the Lancastrian club have produced in recent years, following in the expensive footsteps of Phil Jones. The latest name off that particular conveyor belt is Ryan Edwards, who, like his predecessors, captains the Under-18 team.
Edwards scored a decisive free-kick in the Semi Final against local rivals Burnley to set up a date with the Blues and is exactly what you might expect of such a player; tall, strong and powerful, and a natural leader who raises his game on the big occasion.
He also epitomises his team, who Blues coach Adi Viveash believes “are better than the team [Chelsea] beat in the run to the 09-10 Final” and are exceptionally well coached by Terry McPhillips and Tony Grant.
They opened their campaign with an 8-0 win over lowly Thurrock in the Third Round before beating Coventry and Stoke at Ewood Park. A first away trip took them to Newcastle where they won through on penalties, and then dealt with Burnley in the Semi Finals.
Striker Curtis Haley – one of three players to have scored double figures in goals this season – leads the club’s ranks in the Youth Cup with four goals, just one more than captain Edwards and playmaker Hugo Fernandez.
Tricky forward Osamen Osawe is the sole survivor from the Semi Finals two years ago and, like Haley, combines pace and skill with a handy touch in front of goal. Meanwhile, right-back Robbie Cotton has been involved with the England youth setup and is rated as one of the best prospects to ever come through the Rovers ranks.
They are an exceptional threat from set pieces, with Will Beesley’s delivery consistently good and a number of large targets to hit, but they have been prone to being opened up at the back by some of the better youth teams in their region and can definitely be attacked.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are pretty much a known entity at this stage. Viveash is almost certain to stick with the same team that started both legs against Man Utd and which has proven itself to be the strongest possible selection available.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is the only player who might have threatened breaking up the team but he remains some way off match fitness, and may only come into the reckoning for the second leg at Ewood Park on May 9th.
Otherwise, Nathan Aké and Alex Davey will resume their impressive partnership at centre-back, with Todd Kane and Adam Nditi looking to build off strong performances last week outside them.
Nathaniel Chalobah, John Swift and Lewis Baker will do it all in the midfield, whilst the attacking triumvirate of Islam Feruz, Amin Affane and Piazon will hope to make a similar impact in the Final as they did in both legs of the Semis.
Each of them found the scoresheet and two were on hand to provide the goal for another. Piazon was Man of the Match last week and is in the form of his brief Chelsea career, having also netted in two recent reserve outings.
The Blues have shown spirit, resolve and desire to get to this stage and will have to draw on those qualities once again to get themselves over the line. It will, as usual, be a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining battle.
The first leg is, as mentioned, at Stamford Bridge this Friday evening. If you can’t make it to the ground, you can see it on Chelsea TV, or you can keep right up to date with affairs on Twitter by following @chelseayouth.