Chelsea’s defence of the FA Youth Cup begins this Saturday lunchtime away to Colchester United, and the Blues enter this year’s competition with perhaps more expectation on them to succeed than ever before.
Not only are the Blues the current holders, but they also come into the fixture as the only unbeaten team in Professional Development League Under-18 football, with nine wins and two draws from their eleven fixtures so far. They have set the bar this season and have showed little sign of letting up midway through what could prove to be a wonderfully successful campaign.
Manager Adi Viveash has unrivalled depth from which to pick a team from; six of last year’s regular starting eleven are likely to return for contention this time around, whilst well over a dozen first-year scholars have been key parts of the unbeaten league start so far and will be fighting for a place in the side.
Let’s take a look at those in the mix, starting at the back and working our way through the entire squad.
With Jamal Blackman now too old to feature in the cup, the starting gloves will be turned over to Mitchell Beeney. The 17 year-old served as Blackman’s backup last season and has been a regular in the Under-18 team for a while now, having played regularly as a schoolboy. He’s coming along very well, refining most aspects of his game, and is a considerable physical and vocal presence at the back, marshalling his defence effectively.
Blackman played a key role last season, making a string of important saves at key moments, as well as being a defining factor in the penalty shootout victories at Norwich and West Ham, but Beeney is capable of filling his ample shoes this time around. Fellow first-year Ben Killip will back him up and deputise where necessary, and should the need arise, Under-16 stopper Brad Collins is next in line.
In last year’s Semi Finals, Alex Davey came into the team to partner Nathan Aké at centre-back. The duo hit it off immediately, staying together throughout the rest of the season and making the jump to Under-21 football this season, where they’ve largely remained first choice under Dermot Drummy and continued their development.
They figure to be the first choice pairing in the middle of a unit which has the potential to play a number of combinations of personnel and not necessarily lose anything in terms of quality. For example, should either Aké or Davey be unavailable, Viveash would be able to turn to Dion Conroy and Jordan Houghton, who have both excelled for the youth team this season, and have very little drop-off in talent.
Even looking further down the line, Isak Ssewankambo and Jonathan Muleba have both shown themselves to be handy in the position at times this season, and would add a physical presence if the situation demanded it.
Muleba can also line up at right-back, one of the few vacant positions from last season’s team. Todd Kane has moved on to bigger things, meaning a chance for someone else to grab the spotlight. Based on this season to date, England Under-17 international Fankaty Dabo is favourite to get the nod over Muleba, with the more experienced Samuel Bangura and Nortei Nortey both having struggled with injury so far this season.
Adam Nditi should return at left-back, having earned more playing time for the Under-21s recently, and will be pushed for time by Kevin Wright, one of the most impressive individual performers for the Under-18s so far this season (and the only league ever-present to boot).
The midfield unit, which will most typically be a three-man group in various aligments, is the real strength of this team. It possesses experience, leadership, versatility, goalscoring potential and remarkable quality, headlined by the fact that were he not on loan at Watford, Nathaniel Chalobah would likely be involved in his last year of eligibility.
He’s not though, meaning someone else will join John Swift and Lewis Baker, who were both fantastic en route to success last time around. Ruben Loftus-Cheek should get the chance, having been sidelined throughout last season’s run with injury, and if he does, it will be a midfield trio who are all regular Under-21 squad members.
Swift and Loftus-Cheek have split their playing time between Drummy and Viveash’s squads this season, as much for match fitness as anything else, but Baker is a fully-fledged Under-21 now. He tends to line up in a wider position at the next level, but is at his most influential best in the middle and should be able to play there in the cup.
However, he could just as easily stay out wide if Viveash wants to utilise the dynamic talents of Jeremie Boga. Still a schoolboy, the Frenchman has scored three times for the Under-21s this season and is as big a game-changer as the club has at junior level. He picked up a hamstring injury last weekend at Middlesbrough and so is a fitness question ahead of the Colchester match, but he promises to have a big role to play.
Looking in from the outside, ready to play at a moment’s notice are the likes of Jesse Starkey, George Cole and Charlie Colkett, who have all played well this season, whilst defenders Houghton and Ssewankambo have the added functionality of being adept midfielders as well.
The forward group will line up with a familiar look; one central focal point with two wider players flanking him. Islam Feruz will reprise his role as goalscorer extraordinaire and goes into this weekend’s fixture in the best form of his young Chelsea career. Another who has moved on from Under-18 football, he will be every inch the man to watch in front of goal.
Alex Kiwomya has played more of a leading role for the Under-18s this season, starting more games than in his two previous seasons combined, and lining up centrally rather than out wide. He may nominally start on the flanks with Feruz in the team, but such is the makeup of the team and the playing style of those involved that they will all move around and find themselves in different positions.
The same applies to Reece Mitchell, who may also move out wide despite being mostly effective centrally this season. He has been simply brilliant for Viveash’s charges so far, racking up assist after assist with his deft link-up play, and should he join Feruz and Kiwomya in the attack, it promises to be a very interesting trio to watch. The loss of Amin Affane and Lucas Piazon from last season will be felt, but they are replaceable.
Connor Hunte, Tom Howard, Ambrose Gnahore, George Cole and Ismail Seremba all offer alternatives from the bench – probably in that order – whilst Chike Kandi can provide the muscle and strength in the middle if the situation commands it.
It is an almost entirely club-developed group, with a heavy dose of English talent, and one which has everything required to make a run at a third trophy in four years. Chelsea have become synoymous with the youth cup in recent history and make no attempts to hide the fact that they expect to be amongst the front-runners.
Colchester are the competition’s leading scorers so far this season, racking up 21 goals in wins over Camberley Town and Faversham, but they know they’re up against a whole different monster in the Blues. Kickoff at the Weston Homes Community Stadium on Saturday is at 1pm, with adult tickets priced at £7, whilst children can get in for £1/£3 depending on age.
Live updates will be provided throughout on Twitter @chelseayouth, and the most comprehensive coverage of the competition this weekend and throughout the season can always be found here at TheChels.net.