Previewing the UEFA Youth League Final

On Monday afternoon Chelsea’s Under-19s will take to the field in the Stade Colovray, a picturesque venue on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland (close to UEFA’s Nyon Headquarters) bidding to become Champions of Europe.

Adi Viveash’s young charges square off against Shakhtar Donetsk looking to be crowned UEFA Youth League winners 2014-15 and write a new chapter in what has been a staggeringly successful decade on the pitch for the Blues’ academy. Having fallen at the Quarter Final hurdle last season and then being forced to watch as Barcelona took the honours in the competition’s maiden event, Chelsea are determined to make amends this term by going all the way.

They’ve run roughshod over just about everybody en route to the Final too. Like last season, they cruised through the group stages with an avalanche of goals along the way, although whereas they recorded a 100% record last season, they did suffer defeat to Schalke this time around. The Germans have been something of a bogey team across the two years for whilst Chelsea have recorded three wins against them, Schalke’s two wins represent the only blemishes on an otherwise spotless UYL record and they were duly dumped out at Cobham last March by Leroy Sané and company.

This season’s run began with a 4-1 win over them which served as a warning shot to the rest of Europe. A brace from newly-installed captain Izzy Brown marked him out as one to watch whilst a dazzling solo run by Ruben Loftus-Cheek hinted at the sort of progress that would eventually see him make a first-team debut later in the season.

Home and away maulings of Sporting Lisbon (5-0 and 6-0 respectively) book-ended the meat of the group stage fixtures, whilst also saw a 2-0 win at home to Maribor and a 7-0 hammering handed out over in Slovenia. The 2-0 defeat at Schalke meant goal difference was required to give Chelsea top spot and a home draw in the First Knockout Round, and few teams will have wanted that particular assignment.

Zenit St. Petersburg drew the short straw and although they teased an upset when Ilya Kubyshkin scored the opener with a deft free-kick, goals from Dominic Solanke, Kasey Palmer and Charlie Colkett saw the hosts home. They then hosted Atlético Madrid at Cobham in the last eight and outlasted their Spanish foes in an attritional affair, with goals late in either half from Andreas Christensen and Solanke again getting the job done.

It guaranteed a trip to Nyon, but the opposition was yet to be decided. Manchester City travelled to Roma as heavy favourites having triumphed home and away against their Italian counterparts during the group stages but, in the same manner as Schalke did to Chelsea twelve months earlier, Alberto De Rossi’s boys came away with a 2-1 win and a match against another English outfit.

On paper it looked perhaps closer than it ended up being. Chelsea controlled the entirety of the match before striking three times in twelve second half minutes, eventually strolling to a 4-0 success. They rightly enter the Final as favourites, with opponents Shakhtar having taken a more unusual path to join them.

Their early form was good, racking up four wins and a draw from their first five group matches against Porto, Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov before a final draw away to Porto, a record made all the more impressive when taking into account that they, like their senior counterparts, were unable to host fixutures in Donetsk.

Group matches had been played in Morshyn but the Knockout clash with Olympiacos shifted attention to Kyiv, where a 1-1 draw saw the Ukrainians emerge victorious on penalties. They repeated the trick away to Benfica in the last eight, and a third shootout had looked a realistic possibility against Anderlecht on Nyon last Friday before a spectacular finish saw Shakhtar win 3-1 and take the first Final place for themselves.

Anderlecht went into their Semi Final as favourites after eliminating Barcelona and then putting five past a Porto team Shakhtar themselves had failed to beat during the group stages, but despite dominating the middle portion of the match they were unable to progress further. Chelsea will be by some way the most challenging team they’ve faced in their run to date and they project to be considerable underdogs.

Against Anderlecht, Shakhtar lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which often became a 4-4-1-1 out of possession. In attacking situations, however, they were very keen to leave their wide forwards very high up the pitch, almost in line with centre forward Andriy Boryachuk, which in turn created a vast expanse of space in front of the Anderlecht defence. Neither central defender was particularly adept at bringing the ball out into it but both Christensen and Jake Clarke-Salter are keen proponents of transitioning into midfield and should have some joy in doing so here.

If they do, they’ll hand over to Charlie Colkett and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who were excellent against Roma and will fancy their chances of dominating a Shakhtar midfield that lacked mobility and presence against Anderlecht. They were happy to retain possession in their own defensive third for long spells inside the opening half hour but lacked the guile or enterprise to make good on their control of the game in more advanced areas, instead resorting to hitting longer balls to their more robust forwards.

Chelsea are able to combine technique with athletic prowess perhaps better than any other side in Europe and so whilst it appeared a relatively successful approach against a smaller Anderlecht outfit, the Blues are a different animal in that regard. Despite their physical superiority, they were often beaten in the air, particularly from set pieces, where the Belgian side regularly targeted the near post.

Samy Bourard scored the game’s first goal with a flicked header from a floated delivery to the front post and it had been coming, with Andy Kawaya going close with a near-identical effort earlier in the match, and near-enough every delivery looking to achieve the same outcome. Chelsea typically aren’t a regular threat from corner kicks but if they need to be one here, they have the height and the versatility of set piece taker to add it to their arsenal.

Shakhtar’s three-goal bonanza came directly as a result of defensive lapses from the Anderlecht centre backs and although they deserve every credit for working hard and taking full advantage of them when they came about, to hope for the same again is optimistic at best, but not impossible. Their utilisation of substitutes at key moments paid off terrifically, with each goal scored by the fresh legs of a new arrival against a weary back line. A second game in four days for both sides presents challenges for both coaches in terms of player involvement, and second-half adjustments will become even more important than ever.

Taking both Semi Finals into account however, it would appear that it will take something unforeseen for Chelsea not to triumph. Shakhtar lack the ability to control the game at the level required against the Blues and so will likely defend in a manner similar to Roma; making it hard for their opponents to break them down and look to take what they’ve given on the break.

Roma were unable to capitalise on their first half openings and, as Schalke, Maribor, Sporting et al have discovered to their cost, it’s almost impossible to hold out for long against the relentless Chelsea probing. They create chances in sufficient volume to eventually break down stern resistance and, with the lead achieved, they’re then able to control the match in such a way that if you come at them they can pick you off at will, or if you sit back and bide your time you’re going to be in for just as tough a time. Shakhtar appeared exceptionally vulnerable in central areas, leaving plenty of space for a Charly Musonda or a Jeremie Boga to run riot in, and they’ve regularly displayed their capacity to do so.

That’s not to say the Final is a foregone conclusion though. Center forward Boryachuk is a dogged presence in attack and has the skills not only to create something from nothing, but the presence of mind to react quickly and provide a real and potent threat. The supporting cast work hard and are willing to be combative, and the value of the team lies in their work as a unit, leaving their number nine to provide the extra spark. They’ve displayed fortitude and determination to come through two penalty shootouts and from behind in the Semi Final, and as the cliché goes, they don’t seem to know when they’re beaten.

It also has to be remembered that this is football and anything not only can happen, but often does. The 2012-13 NextGen Series Final against Aston Villa might have been viewed similarly but on that occasion in Lake Como, Chelsea played nowhere near their best and were deservedly beaten on the day. A month later, they faced Norwich City in an FA Youth Cup Final few expected them to lose, but the Canaries deservedly took the spoils in each leg to get their hands on the trophy.

This Chelsea squad still includes players from those disappointments who are keen to make things right. Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Colkett and Boga got the FA Youth Cup part of that out of the way against Fulham last season (with the latter duo set to go again against Manchester City next week), and on Monday afternoon in Switzerland, they’re gunning for European glory.

You can watch the match live on Eurosport from 3pm, with Chelsea TV showing it in full at 11pm. There will, as always, be full coverage on Twitter @chelseayouth, and as a taster for what’s to come, here’s every Chelsea goal in the UEFA Youth League this season in under a minute.

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