Academy Season Preview: Part One – The Competitions

The pathways into meaningful first-team opportunities might still be out of reach but, as we get set to embark upon another season of academy football at Chelsea Football Club, the many young hopefuls in the club’s developmental ranks are still doing everything in their power (and then some) to force the issue.

A year after winning another FA Youth Cup and being crowned Barclays Under-21 Premier League champions, the Blues had set themselves an exceptionally high bar to reach for an encore. Yet somehow they managed it, retaining the Youth Cup to clinch a fourth success in six years (a run unsurpassed in the last fifty years) and claiming a maiden UEFA Youth League title to assert themselves as champions of Europe.

The Under-21s were within one result of retaining their own crown whilst a youthful Under-18 side challenged for league honours deep into the campaign before coming up just short. Throw in another 83 goals from Eddie Newton’s loan army and the picture continues to look exceptionally bright; at least, right up to the point of actually breaking into Jose Mourinho’s squad.

Sure, debuts handed to Andreas Christensen, Dominic Solanke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Isaiah Brown are promising signs and a very public commitment to Loftus-Cheek in particular demands close scrutiny over the coming months, but none of them featured in a meaningful context and for every accolade thrown their way by Mourinho, a similar comment explaining why he ‘can’t’ play them follows.

That’s a debate for another time and place though, and it’s increasingly clear that the on-field product cannot continue to be held back if 2015-16 yields yet more academy success. It promises to be something of a transitional campaign to a certain degree, particularly at Under-21 level, but the majority of players have lifted their fair share of silverware in their teenage years and aren’t about to relax now.

For a change, the status quo has been retained on the competitions front, at least as far as things affecting Chelsea go. The Under-21 Premier League once again features two divisions of twelve teams with the Blues lining up at the top level alongside Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Norwich City, Reading, Southampton, Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur. Teams play each other home and away with the team topping the table after 22 matches clinching the trophy.

The same age group will also take part in the Premier League Under-21 International Cup; a 16-team competition taking the top eight (interested) English teams from last season and eight continental sides; Chelsea having been drawn with Liverpool, Benfica and Celtic. Four groups of four are drawn with two English and two continental sides in each; the top two teams per group advance to the Quarter Finals whereupon it’s a straight single-legged knockout competition. Due to UEFA restrictions, the entire schedule will take place in England predominantly through the autumn.

The UEFA Youth League expands in 2015-16 with 32 new teams joining the party for an overall tally of 64 entries. Chelsea, owing to their first team qualifying directly to the group stage, will play six group stage matches against the same three opponents as the first team find themselves drawn against on August 27th, with their final group standing then determining what happens in the knockout rounds should they reach it.

The 32 newcomers represent the domestic Under-19 champions from each of UEFA’s top 32 countries, and should one of those find themselves in the UCL path by virtue of their first team’s exploits, the place goes to the next eligible UEFA nation on the ladder. Those 32 play off against each other in home-and-away knockout legs until eight remain; those eight then face the eight group runners-up from the other half of the competition, and the winners of those ties play the eight group winners as the competition comes back together for the now-familiar path to Nyon and the Finals weekend.

Joe Edwards’ Under-18s once again take their place in the Southern section of their league, meaning home and away fixtures against Arsenal, Aston Villa, Brighton & Hove Albion, Fulham, Leicester City, Norwich City, Reading, Southampton, Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. Following those 22 matches the leagues split into three groups of eight taking in teams 1-4, 5-8 and 9-12 from the North and South standings for a final home-or-away round of seven matches. The team at the top of Merit Group One will be crowned league champions.

It promises to be another full-on season of hectic action across the various age groups. Tomorrow we’ll take a deeper look into the teams Chelsea will be up against over the coming months before rounding off the week with an in-depth take on the young Blues themselves and what to expect from them in what will be an unmissable 2015-16 of youth football.