Chelsea are Barclays Under-21 Premier League Champions after a 2-1 win over Manchester United in the national Final at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
On an evening of drama and superb entertainment from two of the foremost youth setups in the country, United took an early lead through Tom Lawrence but Chelsea were soon on terms when Charly Musonda displayed guile and trickery to dance his way through for a fine solo goal. The Blues controlled much of the game and were rewarded for their patience when Lewis Baker, the club’s Young Player of the Season, struck the winner ten minutes from time.
Dermot Drummy’s boys were without the injured Jeremie Boga and Dion Conroy and the virus-stricken Alex Kiwomya but were otherwise able to feature a very strong team for their biggest game of the season. Jamal Blackman, the penalty hero of the Semi Final at Manchester City, started between the sticks with Isak Ssewankambo, Ola Aina, Andreas Christensen and Adam Nditi in the back four.
Nathan Aké captained the team from midfield where he joined Ruben Loftus-Cheek with Baker further forward whilst John Swift, fresh from a first team debut at Cardiff on Sunday, slotted in on the right with Kiwomya still sidelined. Musonda started from the left whilst Islam Feruz got to start in attack with Isaiah Brown away on international duty with England’s Under-17 team.
Manchester United included James Wilson after the forward scored twice on his first team bow at home to Stoke last week whilst Lawrence and Michael Keane were also included from the off after returning from impressive loan spells at Yeovil Town and Blackburn Rovers respectively. The trio of Reece James, Charni Ekangamene and Saidy Janko – nominees for the club’s Reserve Team player of the year award – were all included as Warren Joyce kept faith with the boys that got him this far.
Having chosen to concede home advantage and switch the tie to Old Trafford, Chelsea opened up well and looked to make their mark early in front of a very healthy crowd. Baker strode forward through the midfield and chanced his arm with a left-footed strike from distance that was headed towards the top corner before Ben Amos – the sole over-age player involved on the night – tipped the ball away to safety.
The hosts took the lead after twelve minutes of play and did so with a goal that would have graced the first team ranks. Janko surged down the right and took Christensen out of position before feeding Wilson in the centre. The 18 year-old showed fantastic awareness and technique to instantly lay the ball off to Lawrence, who faked a shot on his right side to leave Aina and Aké toiling before steering a wonderful shot into the corner with his left foot.
With plenty at stake, players on both sides were up for the battle and Ben Pearson was booked for a high tackle on Swift before the Chelsea man joined him in the book for a lunge on James. Nditi and Ekangamene would also have their names taken in a first half officiated to senior standards by referee Phil Tierney.
United had enjoyed the better of the game for the first twenty mintues but the Blues started to control things thereafter with a midfield constantly rotating. With Musonda and Swift also inclined to come inside and make things happen they kept a lot of possession in central areas before a piece of Musonda magic got them on terms.
The slightly-built Belgian – the youngest player on the pitch – jinked past three red shirts on a run from the left before finding his footing and drilling a low shot past Amos and into the far corner, leaving the experienced stopper rooted to his position. It was his first goal at Under-21 level and an effort that displayed the exciting potential that attracted the Blues to sign him from Anderlecht in 2012.
Swift and Baker spurned good opportunities to secure a lead when allowed time and space to shoot from distance whilst the hosts felt they had a good shout for a penalty when Aina and Patrick McNair collided in the box, but Mr Tierney was unmoved and the first half ended finely poised with a goal for each team.
A highly lively return to action following the break saw Nditi and Lawrence go close within moments of each other but it was Baker who had the best chance of the entire game after 54 minutes when good work by Swift and Loftus-Cheek presented him with an opening no more than ten yards out, but Chelsea’s leading scorer could only smash it high over the crossbar.
Loftus-Cheek himself had a similarly good moment just before the hour mark when he burst through two to meet Feruz’s pass but although he got his shot on target, Amos made a relatively routine save having come out to smother the attempt.
A rather frenetic pace began to slow down as both teams realised the very likely chance of extra time, but the first change of the night was injury-affected as Wilson, who wasn’t 100% coming into the match, hobbled off to be replaced by James Weir. With no natural striker available on the bench, Joyce was forced into a reshuffle that saw Lawrence take up the centre-forward role.
Kasey Palmer replaced Loftus-Cheek and almost immediately handed United their best chance of the second half as Pearson robbed him and drove past Aina but he was unable to beat Blackman. It proved an important save as less than sixty seconds later, Chelsea took the lead for the first time all night.
It came, appropriately, from the right foot of Baker. Sharpest to a loose touch on the Man Utd right, he quickly exchanged passes with Feruz before guiding a gloriously passed finish into the far corner for his eighteenth goal of a truly outstanding campaign.
The goal signalled a tense and highly nervous final ten minutes of action during which the hosts threw on Tyler Blackett and Joshua Harrop in search of fresh impetus, whilst Charlie Colkett replaced goalscorer Musonda to help shore up the middle of the pitch as Drummy sought to see out the result.
A flurry of corners caused more than a few heart-in-mouth moments whilst Blackett’s spectacular long-range volley was beaten away by Blackman as the young Blues held on to become national champions at this level for the first time since 2011. Following the FA Youth Cup victory ten days earlier, it capped a quite brilliant season for the club’s academy and Baker and Aké followed Loftus-Cheek’s lead from last Monday in lifting the prestigious silverware aloft to bring the curtain down on another unbelievable ten months of youth team football.
Manchester United: Amos, Varela, McNair, Keane, James (c) (Blackett 81), Ekangamene, Pearson, A.Pereira, Lawrence (Harrop 85), Janko, Wilson (Weir 67)
Subs not Used: J.Pereira, Willock
Chelsea: Blackman, Ssewankambo, Aina, Christensen, Nditi, Loftus-Cheek (Palmer 77), Aké, Baker, Swift, Musonda (Colkett 86), Feruz
Subs not Used: Davey, Beeney, Dabo