Chelsea eked out a slender advantage in their FA Youth Cup Semi Final tie against Arsenal by winning an entertaining first leg 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Thursday evening.
Chuba Akpom had put the visitors ahead with a solo strike of the highest order but the Blues, who enjoyed the better of the game overall, responded quickly through Charlie Colkett before Alex Kiwomya’s opportune effort ensured they would take a lead to the Emirates Stadium next week.
Dan Davies’ excellent match photographs can be viewed HERE.
Ahead of kickoff Chelsea had a number of injury concerns and whilst Isaiah Brown and Dominic Solanke were passed fit, Dion Conroy and Jeremie Boga were not so lucky. Conroy’s absence meant a first Youth Cup appearance for schoolboy defender Jake Clarke-Salter, who partnered birthday boy Andreas Christensen at the heart of a defence which saw Ola Aina at right back and Fankaty Dabo on the left (reversing their roles from the previous found at Newcastle) and Mitchell Beeney in goal.
Boga’s absence meant a start for the in-form Jordan Houghton in midfield alongside captain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, with Charlie Colkett pushed forward into Boga’s creative number ten role. Brown and Solanke joined Kiwomya in a versatile and potent front three.
Arsenal made one change from the team that beat Everton in the previous round, welcoming back the talented former Aston Villa midfielder Dan Crowley in place of Jack Jebb.
Their man man was however Akpom, the only player on the pitch with any notable professional experience, and the Gunners looked to involve him early and often with a series of quick long balls over the top to him. It gave Clarke-Salter a testing introduction to football at this level but the Under-16 showed why he was entrusted with the occasion by holding his own again Arsenal’s number nine.
A quick tempo was set from the off and scarcely relented at any point as both teams fought hard for the ascendancy on the evening and for the bragging rights doubtless on the line amongst many international colleagues donning different club colours. The long passes to Akpom meant that highly-rated midfielder Gedion Zelalem was reduced to little more than a spectator in the Arsenal midfield but it did give the visitors chances to attack and saw Ainsley Maitland-Niles have the first shot of note when he beat Dabo before firing wide of the target.
Chelsea stepped up their own game in response and threatened through Kiwomya’s shot dragging across the face of goal, whilst a neat exchange between Colkett and Solanke almost saw the latter find space to shoot before Leander Siemann got his frame in the way. When they did finally hit the target, Josh Vickers was on hand to beat Colkett’s shot away before scrambling across his goal to prevent Kiwomya from following up as well.
Clarke-Salter picked up a booking for a robust challenge on Maitland-Niles before Akpom escaped his attentions long enough to extend Beeney to the fullest of his capabilities as the Chelsea stopper produced an excellent save to deny him at the near post. Akpom was then denied by the offside flag after an excellent reverse pass by Crowley, who until that point had been almost as quiet as Zelalem.
The hosts ended the half the stronger and might have gone ahead when Brown glanced wide from Colkett’s corner or when Solanke failed to connect cleanly with a shot from well outside the box but they went in all square despite Chelsea enjoying the better of the possession and creating the more threatening moments in front of goal.
They continued in the same vein early in the second period too as Vickers denied Brown from the edge of the box whilst Julio Pleguezuelo’s right foot was all that prevented Houghton from releasing Solanke on goal after some impressive Chelsea pressing had forced a mistake by Arsenal midfielder Glen Kamara in his own half. The Spaniard’s intervention proved vital as minutes later, his team were ahead.
Akpom, of course, was at the centre of things. Receiving the ball from Maitland-Niles, he had space in which to advance and take on Aina. The full-back did well enough to force him to the outside and onto his weaker foot but the Gunners’ forward showed why he’s considered to be amongst his club’s best prospects right now by shifting the ball past his man and crashing an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net for 1-0.
It was a pivotal moment in the match and perhaps the tie; one which brought about the question of how Chelsea would respond. They gave their answer emphatically by equalising less than five minutes later. Loftus-Cheek was allowed to power forward unchallenged and although his indecisiveness ultimately saw the situation come to nothing, he rescued it by eventually delivering a fine pass to release Colkett, who in turn was able to deftly flick the ball past the advancing Vickers to make it 1-1.
The momentum was all theirs and Arsenal struggled to get a touch of the ball. Brown tried his luck once again but still couldn’t find a way past Vickers, and although a juicy rebound fell to Solanke, the young forward was unable to keep his balance when shooting and the ball soared over the crossbar as he tumbled backwards in despair.
Vickers had almost single-handedly kept his team in it but when he needed a little bit of help from his defenders, they were found wanting. Chelsea took a deserved lead midway through the second half when Loftus-Cheek curled a delicious cross towards the far post that begged for Solanke to head it in, and whilst Vickers once again performed heroics in keeping it out, Kiwomya acrobatically hooked the loose ball home to clinch a vital win.
Brown was replaced by a third Under-16 in Jay Dasilva whilst both Clarke-Salter and Dabo late on were forced off through injury, with their places being taken by Isak Ssewankambo and Kasey Palmer respectively. Dasilva found Solanke with a low cross from the left not long after arriving into the action but Vickers was there to smother the initial attempt and then watched in relief as Houghton shot wide from the follow-up.
With players on both teams visibly limping in the final minutes it became clear that each was prepared to take the scoreline as it was and renew acquaintances in North London one week from tonight. Chelsea will feel confident of holding onto their lead not only after this display but due to their stellar recent record in the competition, but Arsenal are a different proposition on their own patch and with the backing of a healthy crowd know anything is possible.
Chelsea: Beeney, Aina, Christensen, Clarke-Salter (Ssewankambo 76), Dabo (Palmer 88), Houghton, Loftus-Cheek (c), Colkett, Brown (Dasilva 70), Kiwomya, Solanke
Subs not Used: Collins, Musonda
Arsenal: Vickers, Moore, Siemann, Pleguezuelo, Ormonde-Ottewill, Kamara, Zelalem (Jebb 67), Crowley, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Akpom
Subs not Used: Huddart, O’Connor, Lipman, Dobson