Chelsea began the defence of their latest FA Youth Cup in hard-working fashion with a battling 2-0 win away to Leeds United.
The Under-18s have played and will play better but a performance full of grit, spirit and fight overcame a red card to goalkeeper Brad Collins to triumph 2-0 at Elland Road courtesy of a first half Izzy Brown penalty and a late clincher from Dominic Solanke.
Joe Edwards, coaching in his first tie as manager, had offered something of an insight into his likely team line-up in the 3-0 league victory over Arsenal a fortnight ago and duly selected the same eleven for the trip north. Collins, back from a recent hand injury, kept goal with an athletic-looking back four of Fikayo Tomori, Ola Aina, Jake Clarke-Salter and Jay Dasilva ahead of him.
Charlie Colkett continued the recent line of English midfielders captaining the team – Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker and Nathaniel Chalobah fulfilled the duties in the last three FA Youth Cup campaigns – in midfield alongside Charly Musonda, with Kyle Scott retaining his place following a season of good form and an injury to the supremely-talented Jeremie Boga.
Brown, Solanke and Tammy Abraham have combined for more than thirty goals already this season and joined forces in perhaps the most formidable forward line in the competition.
The two clubs have a long and stories rivalry built on a mutual disdain for each other and whilst the attendance in a rather chilly Yorkshire wasn’t sufficient to intimidate the young Blues, Leeds manager Jason Blunt had clearly informed his charges of the scale of the match-up. They began with intensity, aggression and a determination to make sure their illustrious visitors knew they were in a fight.
United top scorer Robbie McDaid planted an early header straight at Collins before Solanke twice found good pockets of space close to goal at the other end. He connected first with a well-executed lob by Scott only to see his shot blocked for a corner, and from the ensuing set-piece mis-controlled Colkett’s delivery when well-set.
A long ball forward then caused all manner of problems for Aina under the attentions of lively forward Piteu Crouz, who kept his balance well (when going down might have seen the Chelsea defender dismissed) but found his path to goal closed down extremely well by an alert Collins.
The hosts had a claim for a penalty fall on deaf ears as Adam Berry’s shot deflected onto what they claimed was a Chelsea hand but at the other end, the referee did point to the spot twenty minutes in. Abraham surged past Tom Pearce down the right wing and although he had looked to have overrun things, he was wiped out recklessly by England youth international defender Jack Vann.
After Vann received a spot of treatment, Brown stepped up and found the top corner, well out of the reach of Bailey Peacock-Farrell to make it 1-0.
Leeds upped their intensity yet further, drawing bookings for both Abraham and Brown for rather soft offences, but Collins was certainly the busier goalkeeper as the half wore on. Crouz missed from wide on the left but Frank Mulhern, a dangerous attacking midfielder, did call him into action when he connected with Berry’s neat through-ball. The Chelsea stopper was out quickly and down well to send the ball wide of the far post.
Mulhern then went close again with a strike hit early from outside the box, spinning away towards the far post and demanding Collins treat it with respect in turning it away for another corner. Chelsea dealt with that particular threat and mounted a break of their own, culminating in a tame effort by Abraham when he should have done better.
Edwards’ boys did finish the half on top though and might have been two goals to the good had Colkett’s left-footed strike from the edge of the ‘D’ not taken a slight touch off Liam Bennett before thudding onto the foot of the goalpost.
Collins’ fine first half would however give way to a catastrophic second when he was shown a red card less than a minute after the action resumed. A long ball over the top saw McDaid and Clarke-Salter battle with the Chelsea number one flying out to help his centre-back. A collision with the Irishman and not the ball gave the referee little alternative; schoolboy Jared Thompson replaced Musonda in a reshuffle.
Thompson watched Mulhern crash the free kick well over the bar and had a quiet introduction to the match as Chelsea worked hard to keep a strong defensive shape whilst threaten when in possession. Solanke had a close-range effort blocked and Brown couldn’t quite connect with Aina’s cross but Leeds weren’t carving out the same quality of chances as they had been either.
Edwards then turned to Ruben Sammut for additional defensive security with Brown making way, and in response Leeds bolstered their attacking options with Tyla Bell’s introduction. He had a chance moments after arriving on the scene but found Thompson in an unforgiving mood, doing well to recover from making a brave punched clearance.
The Whites began to exploit the flanks with regularity, delivering dangerous and threatening balls into the middle without finding a particular target. McDaid did almost connect with Bell on 71 minutes but Clarke-Salter’s presence proved sufficient to see the threat off and with the clock against the hosts, their sense of urgency was palpable. They threw forward Malik Wilks on for defender Pearce; Edwards responded with Kasey Palmer for the hard-working Abraham.
With the clock ticking into the final ten minutes Chelsea put the tie to bed with a second, crucial goal. Scott’s reverse pass found Solanke’s peeling run and the 17 year-old rounded Peacock-Farrell before scuffing an effort towards goal. It should’ve been cleared by any one of three Leeds defenders in the goalmouth but none of them could adjust their bodies and they could only watch it bobble over the line.
It should’ve been three when Palmer robbed Bennett at the back and flicked Solanke in clear on goal, but Peacock-Farrell got things right this time and made a good save from ten yards out. The fresher legs of Palmer and Sammut in midfield had been injected at just the right time by Edwards and allowed Chelsea to retain a diligent shape whilst playing largely on their terms and Leeds looked increasingly out of ideas late in the game.
The hosts played well at times and certainly made up for any chasm in quality of player and resources by giving their all but Chelsea’s undoubted technical quality was matched by no shortage of commitment and concentration in testing circumstances. They gave as good as they got, did the little things right, and took their opportunities when they came along. They’re in the hat for Round Four, and that’s a job well done.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell, Taylor, Pearce (Wilks 76), Vann, Bennett, Assenso, Berry, Lyman, McDaid (Mbanje 86), Mulhern, Crouz (Bell 62)
Subs not Used: Molloy, Croft
Chelsea: Collins, Tomori, Aina, Clarke-Salter, Dasilva, Colkett (c), Musonda (Thompson 46), Scott, Abraham (Palmer 79), Brown (Sammut 62), Solanke
Subs not Used: Christie-Davies, Wakefield
Goals: Brown (pen), Solanke
Booked: Brown, Abraham, Dasilva, Colkett
Sent Off: Collins