Chelsea get the second half of their Under-21 league campaign underway this evening against Fulham in a match which is live on Chelsea TV.
It’ll be the third time they’ve faced their West London neighbours at this level this season, and the second time in a month that they’ve hosted them. They do so again this time around because both teams have found themselves placed in Tier One of the second phase of Professional Development League action.
Games played from August to December determined a re-ranking order for the post-Christmas slate, with the best teams taking on eachother in the Elite Group, and the rest making up two further groups. Whereas the Blues’ Under-18 team qualified for the very top group, the next generation up the ladder failed to do so after a poor start, rendering a fine run of late form ultimately useless.
The group still stands a chance of winning the national title as provisions are made for the winners of each of the non-Elite groups to play-off for a berth against one of the top three Elite teams in the national Semi Finals, but it won’t be easy. There’s a lot of talent on display in this group, and when you combine that with a Chelsea team which will likely get younger and more inexperienced as the schedule wears on (due to loan departures in the main), there’s certainly a challenge ahead.
Tonight at least, however, we should see a strong team. Half a dozen experienced loanees are back from unsuccessful deals whilst John Terry should play some minutes in his return from injury. Joining opponents Fulham in the group are Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Everton, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland, and here’s what to look out for.
Like Chelsea, Villa were in with an outside chance of making the Elite Group but instead fell to some poor late results and have to settle for second best. They were, however, in an exceptionally capable group and with first team manager Paul Lambert regularly calling on a number of youngsters, found themselves with an exceedingly young team. They miss talismanic injured playmaker Gary Gardner dearly, but forwards Michael Drennan and Graham Burke have weighed in with a few goals, whilst former Chelsea schoolboy goalkeeper Craig Hill has made great strides this term.
A regular recent foe of Chelsea in both the 10-11 Reserve League and 11-12 FA Youth Cup Finals, Rovers struggled for consistency in Group 1, winning five and losing five of their 14 games. A number of their team played in last year’s cup ties with the Blues, and it’s really been a collective effort from them all season, with nobody standing out. John O’Sullivan, Tim Payne, Raheem Hanley and Osayamen Osawe have each nabbed two goals so far.
Everton missed out on an Elite berth on the final matchday and will be amongst the favourites to win this group after a generally impressive campaign to date. Centre-back Shane Duffy has scored an incredible five goals already, with first-team fringe forward Apostolos Vellios weighing in with three. They have taken to using the likes of the Greek forward as well as Magaye Gueye and Ross Barkley at this level and may very well continue to do so.
Fulham join Chelsea having also failed to progress out of Group 3, and the spoils this season have so far been shared. Two goals from Marcello Trotta inspired the Cottagers to a 3-1 win at home in October, but the Blues hit back last time out in the return fixture, running out 3-0 victors. Their team is comprised of players from all corners of the world and often includes experienced pros such as Philippe Senderos or Giorgios Karagounis, and with Trotta now out on loan, could lack goalscoring power in attack. Swede Dino Islamovic and prolific Under-18 striker Cauley Woodrow will attempt to fill the void.
Another Group 3 refugee, Boro’s Under-21s fared better than their Under-18s in a season which has seen a massive jump in quality of opposition and have largely done themselves justice. Arguably their best performance came at Griffin Park when they beat a deflated Chelsea side 3-1 (with top scorer Ryan Brobbel not even on the scoresheet!), and although the win was avenged when Lewis Baker, Billy Clifford and Alex Davey netted in a 3-2 December win at the Riverside, they’re a good side. Fixtures at Stamford Bridge and then back at the Riverside promise to be fascinating affairs.
Recently confirmed as a Category One academy, Sunderland’s youngsters are not particularly well known to Chelsea fans with their geographical location keeping them away from fixture lists for the most part. However, an FA Youth Cup clash last year and a pair of reserve team outings allowed them to show their capabilities and they have a number of intriguing prospects, including former Chelsea winger Billy Knott. He’s been injured and out on loan this season, meaning others have taken up the challenge, and whilst Connor Wickham’s five goals have him leading the charts, Adam Reed and Jordan Laidler have done well in dispatches as well.
As always, you’ll be able to keep up to date with everything pertaining to Chelsea and the Barclays Under-21 Premier League here at TheChels.net and on Twitter @chelseayouth when things kick off again this evening.