Chelsea won their second FA Youth Cup in three years despite a 1-0 defeat against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on Wednesday night.
With a sizeable first leg lead in the bag the return fixture was always likely to be underwhelming and so it proved, with a solitary first half strike from Tim Payne decisive on the night, but not enough to turn the tie in Blackburn’s favour.
Both teams made changes from the first leg, with Blackburn deprived of Reece Hands and Osayamen Osawe through injury and choosing to rest Curtis Haley and Will Beesley ahead of Saturday’s academy league final at Fulham.
Adi Viveash was forced into a change of his own with Nathan Aké away on international duty with the Netherlands. Archange Nkumu was given the nod in his stead, and was joined at left back by Ali Gordon, who replaced Adam Nditi.
In terribly wet conditions on an Ewood Park pitch that has been soaked throughout the week (and seen Premier League action), both sets of players struggled to keep their footing in the opening stages and neither side were able to get the game under control.
Islam Feruz had an early glimpe of action as he looked to latch onto a through ball but quick work by Matthew Urwin in the home goal just about took the chance away from the Scottish Under-21 forward.
As expected, Blackburn were keen to exploit their physical advantage and regularly looked to play the long ball in over Todd Kane to big winger Brad Mason. Their first shot in anger came through John O’Sullivan, but his tame effort was easily gathered by Jamal Blackman.
A relatively even first twenty minutes was interrupted by a robust challenge on Amin Affane which left the Swedish winger struggling. He tried to run his knock off but was unable to, meaning an earlier than usual introduction for Youth Cup super-sub Alex Kiwomya.
Blackburn took the opportunity to seize the initiative and momentum and took the lead minutes later. The Blues conceded possession on the halfway line and watched as O’Sullivan carried the charge for Rovers, but the move only became threatening when Nkumu lost his footing on the edge of his own area.
O’Sullivan squared the ball across the face of goal, Hugo Fernandez left it, and Payne beat the crowd on the goalline to give his team a glimmer of hope in the tie.
That glimmer very nearly became a full crack of light five minutes later when Robbie Cotton found space down the inside right and shot only to see Kane scramble his effort off the line.
Kane had easily been Chelsea’s liveliest first half performer, and his marauding efforts on the right hand side began to stretch the home defence. Swift forced a save from Urwin and provided a pass for Kiwomya which the schoolboy wasted with a poor first touch before full-back Kane drew a save at the near post and then struck the outside of the woodwork in stoppage time.
Viveash reverted to familiar faces at the break, bringing Nditi on for Gordon in a bid to give his team some balance. Gordon had largely played in a defensive role to retain a compact shape but the Blues struggled to move the ball forward and looked predictable with their distribution.
The home side poured forward from the first kick of the second half but in doing so left wide open spaces at the back which was very nearly their undoing. Piazon put the ball on a plate for Kiwomya but once again, he struggled to get his body shape right and placed his attempt well wide of the far post.
Raheem Hanley missed a gilt-edged chance from no more than eight yards out before receiving the game’s first yellow card for a crude challenge on Kiwomya which probably warranted a red.
As the clock ticked towards the hour mark Nkumu became the second Chelsea player to succumb to injury having hurt his hamstring. Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced him, meaning Nathaniel Chalobah dropped back into the back four.
Blackburn sent more and more bodies forward resulting in more than a few heart in mouth moments for Chelsea, but by hook or by crook they were able to get away with things.
With many of those around him struggling and playing some loose passes, Alex Davey was in the middle iof another excellent performance, showing composure and determination to shore things up at the back.
Curtis Haley and Danny Laverty were thrown on as coach Terry McPhillips went for broke in the final fifteen minutes but his team were clearly tiring and Chelsea’s greater fitness levels began to come into effect. Piazon and Nditi did well to create openings which weren’t taken, whilst Loftus-Cheek steered a volley towards goal which was deflected millimetres wide of the post.
Referee Lee Probert signalled the end of proceedings after four minutes of stoppage time to declare Chelsea FA Youth Cup winners for the second time in three years and fourth time in club history.
Nathaniel Chalobah lifted the trophy in front of a sizeable Chelsea contingent in the crowd to signal the end of another fantastic, engrossing youth season.
Chelsea: Blackman, Kane, Davey, Nkumu (Loftus-Cheek 60), Gordon (Nditi 45), Chalobah (c), Swift, Baker, Lucas Piazon, Affane (Kiwomya 28), Feruz
Subs not Used: Beeney, Nortey
A full review of the campaign at youth and reserve level covering every angle possible will be on TheChels.net throughout late May.
(Thanks to Ross Mooring for the photo)