2012 was quite a year for the Chelsea FC academy.
FA Youth Cup winners for the second time in three seasons back in May, the club then achieved Category One status in the new Elite Player Performance Plan, and have been leading the way in the 2012-13 Premier Academy League season ever since.
Nine wins, two draws and just one defeat – away to Fulham in mid-December – secured their safe passage into the Elite Group of competition which begins early in the new year. The three groups played out before Christmas will now split based on points acquired, with groups re-forming to ensure that ‘best plays best’ at the very top.
Perhaps the quirkiness of the fixture list helped the Blues along their way – they had all six home matches clustered together consecutively at the start of the season and won all of them – but they’ve been good value for their place amongst the elite and will almost unanimously be considered amongst the favourites to become national champions in April.
They have more quality in depth than almost any of their direct competitiors and will fear nobody, having come through arguably the most competitive first stage group with each of their Group C opponents also being classified as Category One except for Crystal Palace, who really should be.
The Elite Group will doubtless be a thorough test of their credentials though, with marquee names present throughout and teams who have been in impressive form thus far.
These are the seven teams Chelsea will face home and away between now and the end of the season, and the key names to look out for:
Bolton got their campaign underway with a 5-1 thumping of Arsenal and never looked back, ranking third amongst all teams with 2.36 points per game and rampaging through Group A with Reading. The club might not have the greatest record of youth productivity in recent years but they are producing quality, particularly in recent years, and the likes of Luke Woodland, Tom Youngs, Zach Clough and Georg Iliev have been brilliant this season, combining for 26 goals in 14 games.
Chelsea have already faced Palace twice this season in Group A, with the Eagles qualifying as one of the two best third-placed teams. The Blues won 3-1 at Cobham and shared a 3-3 draw in the return fixture in Beckenham, and will therefore be under no illusions of the threat posed by the South Londoners. Top scorer Sullay Kaikai and schemer Jake Grey have both signed professional contracts over Christmas, having been their best players in the first half of the season, whilst Ryan Inniss and Connor Dymond have also impressed.
Everton make it as the other best third placed team and would likely have run the Group A qualifiers a lot closer if it wasn’t for a rather inconsistant start. England Under-18 striker Chris Long has led the way with eight goals but didn’t pick up until the second half of their fixture list and really, the Toffees have contributors all over the pitch, and have given a healthy dose of playing time to their Under-16 class. Ryan Ledson is the one to watch amongst them, having caught the eye in this season’s Sky Sports Victory Shield, where he captained England to another successful tournament.
The Whites are the only team to defeat Adi Viveash’s youngsters this season and are the defending Under-18 champions. They are as credible a threat as any team Chelsea can face and qualified for the Elite Group with games to spare. Steve Wigley has moulded his squad of local talent and imported foreigners into a cohesive and capable unit, speadheaded by the 12-goal Cauley Woodrow and Swedish forward Muamer Tankovic, who has grabbed eight.
For a club with an unrivalled record in youth development in English football, not a lot has been said about the latest generation of Reds coming through at their Carrington training ground. FA Youth Cup winners and Semi Finalists in each of the last two seasons, they’re already out of this year’s edition having fallen to a good Burnley side, but they’ve been making steady progress in the league and, led by James Wilson and his twelve goals – including five in one game against Newcastle – they’re certain to be a very strong outfit. Midfielder Ben Pearson has arguably been their player of the season to date as he has returned from injury looking every inch the prospect he’s been touted as.
Reading, with 2.5 per game, have taken more points per game than any other team in academy football and have arguably the most potent attack in the country. Forward Uche Ikpeazu leads the league with his fourteen goals whilst Tariqe Fosu-Henry, Craig Tanner, Liam Kelly and Jake Cooper have all weighed in with contribtions. They are a physically strong and imposing group which doesn’t lack on athleticism, but as you would expect from one of the leading lights, they can also play football with any of their rivals.
The country’s top-ranked academy under the EPPP grading criteria until Aston Villa usurped them last month, Southampton cruised to Elite Group qualification in Group B, sealing their berth with weeks to spare. They finished their pre-Christmas fixtures by giving a host of Under-16s a look with the rest of the season in mind, and could reap the benefits going forward. Ryan Seager has 13 goals with support from attacking midfielders Omar Rowe (6) and Charlie Higgins (3), but will perhaps be uncertain of their chances against Chelsea, having lost 8-3 at Cobham in an October friendly.
As always, you’ll be able to keep up to date with everything pertaining to Chelsea and the Premier Academy League here at TheChels.net and on Twitter @chelseayouth when things kick off again this weekend.