Chelsea’s Under-21s produced a battling performance full of courage and determination to overcome a very good Manchester City side in the Semi Finals of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League and secure their place in the showpiece occasion as they continue their bid to win a first title at this level since 2011.
Islam Feruz opened the scoring early in the first half and despite considerable pressure from the home team they held onto their advantage for an hour before Olivier Ntcham levelled. Extra Time couldn’t determine a winner so the penalty shootout was called upon and it was Man of the Match Jamal Blackman who came up big for the Blues as he saved twice to help edge his team home.
With the tie falling between the two legs of this year’s FA Youth Cup Final, Dermot Drummy’s team selection took that into account with four changes from the team that started against Arsenal ten days ago. Blackman returned in goal in place of Mitchell Beeney, whilst Fankaty Dabo replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a move that saw Isak Ssewankambo move into midfield, playing alongside Lewis Baker and just behind John Swift.
Feruz, an impressive contributor from the bench at the Emirates Stadium, covered for the illness-stricken Alex Kiwomya on the right wing, and Charly Musonda came in for Reece Mitchell on the left side flanking lone centre-forward Isaiah Brown.
City missed Belgian defender Jason Denayer but were able to include Shay Facey after the England Under-19 international passed a fitness test. Coach Patrick Vieira opted for top scorer Jordi Hiwula over Devante Cole in attack and played with one striker flanked by captain Marcos Lopes and the Kosovan international Sinan Bytyqi.
The match had been switched to the Etihad Stadium despite Chelsea having finished top of the table because of a lack of available venues at short notice and perhaps buoyed by the unexpected bonus of playing in the first team’s ground and in front of their own fans, City started with great impetus and looked to influence things through the considerable presence of midfielders Ntcham and Seko Fofana.
The latter threatened early on with a pair of crosses that were cut out by Dabo and Ola Aina before Blackman was required to come off his line smartly and efficiently to deny Hiwula, but the home team’s profligacy would be a theme of the first half.
It would prove even more frustrating for them after Chelsea took the lead inside of a quarter of an hour. Musonda jinked in from the left and released Baker with a lovely reverse pass. The Blues’ skipper went round goalkeeper Ian Lawlor but couldn’t keep the angle to score himself, instead turning and planting a cross onto the head of Feruz, who rose between two much taller defenders and looped a header into the far corner.
A five-minute spell after the goal might have seen them extend their lead further but Baker held onto a pass he should’ve released to Brown just a moment too long before Brown himself prodded wide of an open net after robbing Ellis Plummer of the ball with Lawlor out of position.
Led by Ntcham, a powerfully-built midfielder in the mould of his manager, City began to turn the screw in their bid to get back on level terms and carved out a number of impressive chances as the half went on. Few of them were better than the one Adam Drury drilled into Bytyqi’s path with a cross from the right but with the goal gaping from no more than six yards out he failed to guide the ball towards the target.
Lopes, who had earlier been shaked up by an awkward fall over Feruz, flashed a shot wide of the post after being released by Fofana’s pass, before the Frenchman himself and Hiwula both had half-chances come and go before the half time whistle sent Chelsea in a goal to the good.
The second half simply picked up where the first had left off and Lopes should have done better with his opportunity five minutes after the restart; instead shooting straight at Blackman when afforded both time and space by some generous Chelsea defending.
With Monday’s date at home to Fulham very much in mind, Drummy withdrew Dabo just before the hour and brought the in-form Kasey Palmer into midfield. City responded by throwing on a pair of fresh strikers in Cole and Thierry Ambrose, and then there was also a welcome return to action following injury for Jeremie Boga, who swapped in for Musonda on the left wing.
Unfortunately, his comeback would last no more than five minutes as his damaged ankle proved to still be a problem and he headed off clearly devastated with the turn of events and Loftus-Cheek entered in his stead.
Fellow substitute Palmer had a good chance to make an impact as he linked well with Feruz before curling a shot wide from the edge of the box, but did also have his name taken for a mistimed lunge on Ntcham. Loftus-Cheek himself then very nearly doubled the lead with a towering header to meet a corner only to see George Glendon clear from under his own crossbar.
The chances had dried up for Man City at least in comparison to the first half but with just under a quarter of an hour remaining they finally found the equaliser their overall body of work had deserved. Ambrose doggedly worked to win possession away from the covering Aina and with few Chelsea defenders back, Ntcham was able to turn and fire past Blackman from six yards out.
They then set about winning the tie inside ninety minutes and although Fofana missed the target from a long way out, Ambrose didn’t and would have thought his explosive strike on the run from deep was destined to find the top corner until Blackman threw out a hand and pawed it to safety.
Yet against the run of play Chelsea then created two glorious moments to win the day themselves. Nditi picked out Baker, who was only denied by a brave block by Plummer, and as the second phase of play developed it was Baker who headed back across goal to give Feruz what looked like the easy chance of tapping home, but the Scotsman sliced wildly at the bouncing ball and slammed his slot well, well wide of the target.
The miss meant extra time and thirty more minutes for five boys who played 90 minutes at Craven Cottage just three days earlier. It didn’t immediately show as they made the best of the early going in the added period and forced three quick corners but were unable to test Lawlor and before long found themselves on the back foot again. Fofana should have done a lot better after getting the better of Loftus-Cheek to create a four-on-three situation but opted to shoot himself and failed to test Blackman.
Ambrose was booked for simulation having attempted to win a penalty from Blackman after the Chelsea man had stopped Lopes’ deflected effort and Cole twice curled over the crossbar either side of the interval in extra time, whilst Baker – by this point easily Chelsea’s freshest player – curled wide when several team-mates were better placed.
City had one last almost-moment as Ambrose tried his luck in a very similar fashion to Ntcham’s goal but Aina’s touch took it just the wrong side of the post from a home perspective, and spot kicks would have to settle things.
Tasende, Glendon, Facey and Cole all scored for City as did Brown, Christensen, Baker and Swift for Chelsea, but Fofana’s miss in the third round of kicks meant Palmer had the chance to win it for the visitors. Lawlor saved his strike to send things to sudden death but Blackman’s second stop of the shootout broke Ntcham’s heart and Loftus-Cheek kicked off celebrations as Chelsea secured their place in the Final, where they will host either Liverpool or Manchester United.
Manchester City: Lawlor, Drury, Leigh, Facey, Plummer, Glendon, Fofana, Ntcham, Bytyqi (Ambrose 59), Lopes (c) (Tasende 107), Hiwula (Cole 59)
Subs not Used: O’Brien, Bryan
Chelsea: Blackman, Dabo (Palmer 54), Aina, Christensen, Nditi, Ssewankambo, Baker (c), Swift, C.Musonda (Boga 59, Loftus-Cheek 66), Brown, Feruz
Subs not Used: Collins, Houghton