Chelsea confirmed their credentials as the team to beat in the inaugural UEFA Youth League as they made it seven wins from seven by demolishing Milan 4-1 in the Round of Sixteen.
Lewis Baker was the star of the show as he scored two terrific goals, whilst Jeremie Boga and Alex Kiwomya also got in on the act as Dermot Drummy’s boys joined Barcelona as confirmed last eight participants.
Ahead of the game, the most notable piece of team news was the absence of captain Nathan Aké. The Dutchman was selected as part of Jose Mourinho’s first-team group travelling to Istanbul having been an ever-present in the competition’s group stage, and so Dion Conroy was afforded the opportunity to impress in his stead.
He joined a back four also including Fankaty Dabo, Andreas Christensen and Ola Aina, with Mitchell Beeney behind them. Ruben Loftus-Cheek joined Baker – deputising as skipper in Aké’s absence – and Boga in the central midfield areas, with John Swift and Alex Kiwomya flanking Islam Feruz in attack.
Milan travelled to London on a high having just won the prestigious Viareggio Tournament in Italy and manager Filippo Inzaghi was able to call upon the services of Andrea Petagna for the first time in the UEFA Youth League. The muscular forward had spent the first half of the season on loan at Sampdoria and with Serie A experience to his name, was easily the Rossoneri’s man to watch.
Maks Barisic had the game’s first shot inside a minute but it sailed wide of Beeney’s goal, and it would prove to be a rare moment of offensive interest for Milan in a first half in which they sat deep, defended in numbers, and asked Chelsea to break them down. The Blues kept possession, moved the ball about patiently and waited for their opportunity, but true goalmouth incident was hard to come by in the opening forty-five minutes.
With so many red and black shirts packed behind the ball, the hosts typically looked for long diagonal passes out to the wide areas – to Kiwomya on the left in particular – in order to transition more quickly up the pitch. Kiwomya’s individual battle with right-back Davide Calabria was an interesting one in which each player had their fair share of success, although the Italian was lucky not to give away a penalty when clearly handling the ball to bring an early end to a foray forwards by Aina.
Boga offered a glimpse of his talents midway through the half when exchanging passes with Baker before taking off on a darting run which just lacked a finish. Swift and Kiwomya then both shot wide from central areas whilst a mistake by Dabo at the other end threatened to allow Marco Pinato in on goal, but the ever-reliable Christensen was on hand to sweep up and clear the ball to safety.
On the stroke of half time, Baker put Chelsea ahead in his own almost inimitable style. Having beaten two men to win a free kick on the edge of the box, he picked himself up to send a fizzing effort into the back of the net, beating goalkeeper Stefano Gori for pace and placement. It was a deserved lead, but it was also interesting from a tactical perspective as it would surely mean Milan having to open up in the second half.
Open up they did, and with the introduction of Michael Fabbro from the bench, looked set on finding a quick answer to their one-goal deficit. Petagna, who had looked good in possession whenever the ball found him, lashed a shot wide from long range after a slip-up by Conroy, and with Pinato and now Fabbro either side of him, Inzaghi’s boys looked more potent.
They would, however, quickly find themselves 2-0 down. Baker’s reverse pass on the halfway line found Boga in acres of space, and the Frenchman took off for goal. He came forward unchallenged until he reached the edge of the penalty area, and with Milan still backing off, he unleashed an unstoppable shot which crashed past Gori.
Visibly frustrated, Alessandro Mastalli and Zen Benedicic were both booked for needlessly aggressive fouls, although they were soon joined by Christensen and Aina as the Chelsea defenders brought an abrupt end to Milan advances. Chances came from both set pieces, but whilst Andrej Modic’s first effort curled well wide, his delivery for the second was more clever and found an unmarked Mastalli, who really should have done better than to sky his effort high over the crossbar from just ten yards out.
Changes arrived on both sides, including the welcome return from injury of Isaiah Brown, but it was Man of the Match Baker who sealed Chelsea’s spot in the last eight with a contender for the goal of the tournament. Swift, Dabo and Boga had threatened with an intricately-worked move close to the Milan goal, but the visitors were able to clear. Baker gathered the ball some 35 yards from goal and unleashed a thunderous strike which dipped ferociously en route to the top corner.
Milan completely folded after that and Kiwomya soon added his name to the scoresheet for 4-0 with a smart finish having been released by Swift. It came just after Baker had given Boga a chance to take a free kick following a foul by Mastalli which should have seen the defender receive his second yellow card, but referee Peter Kralovic opted for the lenient approach.
Petagna grabbed a late consolation effort with ten minutes to go, nodding in following a corner won following a good save by Beeney from full-back Tamas. Unfortunately for Beeney, he mis-judged the flight of the ball from the set-piece and Petagna was given the simple task of stooping to meet the ball as it dropped to the near post.
An unusually wide-open last few moments saw Kiwomya and Petagna both have opportunities to add to their individual tallies, but Baker’s second had long since ended the match as a contest and Chelsea now await the winner of the Real Sociedad vs Schalke tie later this evening in the Quarter Finals ahead of a potential Semi Final and Final weekend in Nyon, Switzerland in April. On the evidence of this match, it’ll take a very good team to stop the Blues being there.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo (Ssewankambo 82), Conroy, Christensen, Aina (Dasilva 88), Loftus-Cheek (Brown 69), Baker (c), Boga, Swift, Kiwomya, Feruz
Subs not Used: Collins, Colkett, Houghton, Palmer
Milan: Gori, Calabria, Tamas, Simic, Iotti (c), Pinato (De Santis 79), Benedicic, Mastalli, Modic (Piccinocchi 72), Barisic (Fabbro 50), Petagna
Subs not Used: Ferrari, Saporetti, Bende, Vico