Chelsea’s hopes of winning the first ever Barclays Under-21 Premier League Cup were ended on Monday evening as they were knocked out at the Quarter Final stage 1-0 by Arsenal.
It took 120 minutes to separate the two London sides in a game fraught with tension and filled with glaring misses, but Benik Afobe’s strike early in the second period of extra time proved enough to edge the result and put Steve Gatting’s side into the Semi Finals.
It was a familiar-looking team selection from Dermot Drummy, one without too many surprises or alterations considering the stature of the fixture, and it was an unchanged eleven from last week’s victory at Wolves.
Mitchell Beeney continued in goal (with younger brother Jordan on the bench) with a back four of Fankaty Dabo, Alex Davey, Andreas Christensen and Nathan Aké, who once again played at left-back in order to gain experience there should he be needed for emergency first-team duty.
Lewis Baker and John Swift joined forces in the central midfield spots, relegating Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the bench again, with a trio of Isaiah Brown, Jeremie Boga and Alex Kiwomya lining up behind Islam Feruz, fresh from a brace (and a missed penalty) last time out.
Arsenal featured experience in attack in the form of Japanese international Ryo Miyaichi and England Under-21 forward Afobe, but also included much talked about 16 year-old midfielder Gedion Zelalem, who made his senior debut last Friday night in the FA Cup against Coventry City.
The opening sixty seconds were rather concerning from a Chelsea point of view as an apparently innocuous collision between Baker and Arsenal full-back Daniel Boateng left the Blues midfielder writhing in pain, but a couple of minutes of treatment saw him resume play and moments later he rifled in a low shot on his left foot to draw Matthew Macey into the first action of the night in the visitors’ goal.
Drummy’s boys were largely reduced to ambitious long-range efforts in the first half, but they were able to keep Arsenal to even less than that. A momentary miscommunication between Davey and Beeney at the back allowed Afobe to nip in for a chance, but the goalkeeper responded well to beat the effort away for a corner, and it would rarely get better than that for the team in red before the break.
Chelsea, meanwhile, looked to patiently eke out openings and tried to take advantage of set piece situations. Baker managed to pick out an unmarked Davey midway through the half with a peach of a delivery but the defender perhaps didn’t realise quite how much time he had and contrived to volley the ball both high and wide.
Boga and Kiwomya had long range efforts come to very little, and at the other end Dabo showed excellent athleticism and timing to make two quick tackles to keep Kris Olsson and Thomas Eisfeld at bay. The German Eisfeld might have then considered himself very lucky to remain on the pitch in stoppage time as he launched a two-footed tackle on Brown which didn’t even elicit a reaction from the referee.
Thankfully, Brown wasn’t injured and was able to continue, but there would be no Dabo as the teams emerged for the restart. He was replaced by first-year scholar Ola Aina, himself an impressive performer in the youth team’s weekend trip to West Ham. Blessed with pace and strength, he immediately signalled an increase in tempo from the hosts and less than five minutes later Kiwomya’s excellent cross provided a gilt-edged opportunity for Feruz; one which ended up being skied high over the crossbar.
Macey was then called into his most notable save of the match up to that point just shy of the hour mark when Boga strode forward to release Brown, who unleashed a shot destined for the near post before the former Bristol Rovers man intervened. Chelsea began to step up through the gears in a bid to seize the advantage and Brown once again drew Macey into action before a sensational slaloming run through the Arsenal defence by Kiwomya threatened to light up the match before fizzing out with a tame shot from a wide position.
Loftus-Cheek entered the fray twenty minutes from time in place of Swift, who had received the game’s first caution moments earlier, and Arsenal’s first shuffling of the pack saw the ineffective Miyaichi replaced by Spanish youngster Jon Toral. The changes took a little of the sting out of the game following a spell of Chelsea dominance and as the prospect of extra time loomed larger by the moment, a safety first attitude began to take over on both sides.
Arsenal captain Hayden shot over on his weaker left side from the edge of the box and Davey tried to catch Macey out with a shot from near enough the halfway line, but neither strike ever looked like breaking the deadlock. The visitors picked up the pace in the final five minutes and really should have won it all in the 89th minute when Toral arrived unmark to meet Eisfeld’s cutback towards the penalty spot but with the goal at his mercy, he planted his shot well wide.
A dogged last-gasp effort from Feruz might have turned the tables in Chelsea’s favour as he took on and beat two defenders plus Macey but the ball just ran away from him when it needed no more than a poke over the line and ran out of play to take us into extra time.
Chelsea’s third and final sub saw Adam Nditi replace Brown five minutes into the first half of extra time and he should have given his team the lead with his first touch. Arriving at the far post to meet Kiwomya’s cross, he shot straight at Macey, who held two hands on the ball just the right side of the line before it was bundled out of his hands illegally, resulting in a correctly disallowed goal.
The newcomer’s fresh legs and eagerness to impress injected fresh life into his team and from a free kick he won from Boateng, Baker first caused a commotion with a drilled delivery into the near post before getting it back from Feruz and hitting the crossbar with a delicately floated shot towards the far top corner.
Arsenal’s response was to go just as close when Eisfeld picked up a loose ball ten yards from goal and looked certain to score, but found his path blocked by a well-placed Aké block to round off the first fifteen of the thirty additional minutes. It was a moment that offered a reminder that the game could swing one way or the other in an instant and less than twenty seconds after the turnaround, Afobe finally made the breakthrough with a composed finish over Beeney’s head after latching onto Olsson’s clipped long through ball.
Chelsea continued to be frustrated, striking the frame of the goal yet again with five minutes left. Another perfect free kick delivered by Baker was met this time by Christensen, who could beat Macey but not the post. Loftus-Cheek then marauded his way into attack and released Feruz with a perfect pass, but the Scottish forward was let down by a tired touch.
That would be that, as Arsenal became the first team to book their place in the last four of the inaugural Under-21 Cup. Both teams had their fair share of moments to win the game but Afobe took the one that mattered and Chelsea will reflect on missed opportunities both on the night and in the competition overall.
Chelsea: M.Beeney, Dabo (Aina), Davey, Christensen, Aké (c), Baker, Swift (Loftus-Cheek), Boga, Kiwomya, Brown (Nditi), Feruz
Subs not Used: J.Beeney, Conroy
Arsenal: Macey, Boateng, Pleguezuelo, Ajayi, Ormonde-Ottewill, Hayden (c), Zelalem, Olsson, Eisfeld, Miyaichi (Toral), Afobe
Subs not Used: Iliev, Kamara, Fagan, Iwobi