So here we are again. To accept it as an inevitability would be doing the academy an immense disservice but for the fourth consecutive season and the fifth time in six years, Chelsea are in the FA Youth Cup Final. During that time they’ve won it on three occasions but are yet to successfully retain it, and so the aim against Manchester City over the next two Monday nights is surely to become the first team in more than a decade to so just that and, in doing so, emulating the legendary Chelsea team of 1960-61.
The Blues go into the two-legged affair in rude health and with the sort of confidence only a UEFA Youth League victory can provide. Many of those set to contest the forthcoming fixtures featured extensively in Switzerland as a Semi Final evisceration of Roma and a Final beating of Shakhtar Donetsk saw Chelsea crowned European Under-19 Champions. It sealed the first part of what could be at least an unprecedented double; one that could even eventually become an unlikely quadruple, with domestic Under-18 and Under-21 league titles still up for grabs too.
In their way stand Manchester City; financial equals and Premier League combatants at senior level, and an emerging force on the youth scene in much the same manner as Chelsea have become since their own takeover in 2003. The two teams, along with West Brom, Reading and more latterly Tottenham, tend to dominate junior age group tournaments in this country and it’s fitting that the two best Under-18 teams meet in the showpiece occasion at their peaks.
They’ve met before too; in 2008, Chelsea reached their first final in fifty years and faced a City side then built by the legendary figure of Jim Cassel; his last work of note before the Abu Dhabi investment arrived three months later and he became rather marginalised. Future Chelsea signing Daniel Sturridge scored at Stamford Bridge with Gael Kakuta replying for the hosts, but a barnstorming display by the Citizens in front of just less than 20,000 fans at the (then) City of Manchester Stadium saw them claim a first-ever Youth Cup crown with goals from Ben Mee, Vladimir Weiss and David Ball.
Ahead of their 2015 head-to-head, cynics might have you believe that the vast riches available to either side has led to widespread poaching of the best talent from elsewhere, but a closer analysis of the two squads (as you shall discover below) reveals two squads comprised mainly of home-grown produce developed within the respective academies since very formative ages. City and Chelsea have combined to supply England’s Under-19s with as many as nine regular players this season, and a number of them will be key figures in this most intriguing of Youth Cup finals.
The Road to the Final
Chelsea’s run in the competition has been typically boisterous and entertaining; Joe Edwards’ side banging in 22 goals in six matches starting with a hard-fought 2-0 win at Leeds United in December. January brought a 6-1 Fourth Round drubbing of Huddersfield Town, and a fortnight later Swansea City found themselves on the wrong end of another six-goal hiding.
A second consecutive Quarter Final trip to Newcastle threatened more trouble than it ultimately caused as Chelsea eventually prevailed 3-0 after extra time – the winning margin fairly deserved on the balance of play – and set up a two-legged Semi Final against Tottenham Hotspur. A 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane cast some doubts about further progress and when Shayon Harrison extended that lead to three with an hour left in the tie at Stamford Bridge, few could have been blamed for allowing thoughts of a disappointing ending to develop.
This is Chelsea and the FA Youth Cup though. A five-goal blitz in half an hour either side of half time blew Spurs away and ensured a fourth straight final would indeed come to be.
Man City, on the other hand, have cruised through without any great drama. They too started out with a 2-0 win at home to Oxford before christening their new City Football Academy Stadium with an 8-2 walloping of Coventry City. Brandon Barker’s hat-trick helped set them up as one to keep a very close eye on and after edging past Stoke 1-0, Crewe’s impressive run to the Quarter Finals ended with a summarily executed 6-1 win.
Leicester put up strong resistance in their Semi Final but 3-0 and 2-1 wins respectively meant the Blues take on the Sky Blues at the ‘Minihad’ and at Stamford Bridge to decide who has the best Under-18 team in the country.
A wealth of talent will be on show, so in order to get acquainted with those set to entertain the masses, here’s the two squads in penpic fashion:
(players listed have featured in at least one FAYC matchday squad this season)
Bradley Collins: Ever-present in the competition apart from the second half at Leeds, when he was sent off for a professional foul. Makes big saves when required and adept at passing from the back.
Jared Thompson: A capable deputy and currently an Under-16 set to take over as first choice next season. Developing something of a reputation for saving penalties.
Ola Aina: Powerful and athletic England Under-19 right-back who can also play in central defence. Possesses devastating place and is a huge attacking influence.
Charlie Wakefield: Also able to play in a more advanced midfield role, a lovely dribbler with flair and patience and no shortage of end product when called upon.
Fikayo Tomori: Has played right across the back four this season but is at his best at the heart of the defence, where his composure and strength is combined with real leadership as one of the players who has developed supremely well this season.
Josh Grant: Under-16 defender with plenty of Under-18 experience this season. Offers cover in every defensive position and has a fantastic future ahead of him.
Ali Suljic: Swedish defender also offering defensive cover at centre-back with a bit more experience and aerial presence.
Jake Clarke-Salter: Silky-smooth left-footed centre-half emerging as a first choice at Under-21 level despite only turning 17 earlier in the season. Key to transitioning from the back as he’s equally comfortable bringing the ball out himself or utilising his long passing range.
Jay Dasilva: Under-21 regular left-back who turns 17 later this week and has earned rave reviews from all quarters for performances that belie his tender years.
Charlie Colkett: Captain and unquestionable leader of this side. Dictates play in an unerringly controlled manner; everything goes through him and he takes that responsibility well. Superb in the UEFA Youth League success and will be amongst Chelsea’s most important players here.
Ruben Sammut: A more defensive midfielder with tactical awareness and maturity beyond his age. Can be relied upon to protect the defence and remains composed in every situation.
Kyle Scott: A versatile midfield playmaker with wonderful technique and vision, preferring to dictate the play and create from deep with his smart use of the ball and movement away from it.
Mukhtar Ali: Neat and tidy central midfielder who has been used mainly as a substitute during this run.
Isaac Christie-Davies: Yet to really influence the FAYC campaign but has the versatility to perform in any midfield role and provide both a goal and a set piece threat.
Charly Musonda: A dazzlingly gifted Belgian playmaker with the most elusive dribbling technique and skill. Developing his all-round game well and was arguably man of the match in the UEFA Youth League Final.
Jeremie Boga: On his day he can be unplayable. Hazard-esque dribbling combined with a robust physique and an unstoppable shot, he’ll want to make up for lost time having missed out on last year’s Final through injury and wound up on the losing side a year earlier despite scoring twice against Norwich.
Kasey Palmer: Something of a super-sub, his personal goal of the season competition midway through the season has to be seen to be believed. A definite game-change from the bench
Izzy Brown: The UEFA Youth League winning captain but hands the armband over to Colkett at this level. Increasingly influential in big matches over the last two months and on the verge of a first team debut; it should come before the end of the season.
Tammy Abraham: Lanky striker with an immense goalscoring record (34 this season) that many initially attribute to his size before watching him more closely and discovering his work ethic, desire and determination to score as many goals as he possibly can is the foundation behind his success.
Dominic Solanke: Goalscorer extraordinare. As an Under-16 last season he scored in all bar one round of the FAYC, including two goals in the final five minutes to win the trophy. A goal for England in the European Under-17 Championship Final took him to 30 for club and country en route to another winner’s medal there, and with 34 Chelsea goals to his name this season he’s already secured a UEFA Youth League title (12 goals there, scoring in every round) and by scoring in this FAYC Final will have scored at every turn of this campaign too.
Kjetil Haug: A backup for most of the season, has recently come into the team on a more regular basis and started the last three Youth Cup ties including both Semi Final legs.
Charlie Albinson: The first-choice goalkeeper in league and cup for the majority of the season, has recently played second fiddle to Haug.
Pablo Maffeo: An infectious talent at right-back, he plays with an intensity and intelligence of an older player and can also feature inside at centre-back.
Sam Tattum: A local lad with the commitment and passion of someone fitting that bill, he often captains the team in league fixtures and is the very definition of the word dependable.
Charlie Oliver: Another league regular, he a strong presence at centre-back and in the Youth Cup will provide insurance for the first-choice players at that position.
Tosin Adarabioyo: Captain and a key influence at centre-back, England youth international Adarabioyo has excellent physical size and technical ability, much will be expected of him in his battle against Solanke.
Cameron Humphreys: Another locally-sourced lad, his partnership with Adarabioyo has developed into a particularly strong one and his skills on the ball in particular set the tone for how City will play from the back.
Angelino Tasende: A Spanish left-back with the capacity to play very effectively in midfield, his attacking intent is there for all to see and recently netted a hat-trick against Leicester in an Under-21 fixture.
Kean Bryan: Nominally a defensive midfielder who can also play at the back, his breaking up of play and clever distribution are the hallmarks of his game but he has been victim of lapses of discipline this season, beginning with a red card against Chelsea in the opening Under-21 fixture back in August.
Rodney Kongolo: A Dutch youth international and younger brother of Feyenoord’s full international Terence, Rodney was heavily linked with Chelsea before opting to head to Manchester. More of a box to box midfielder compared to his brother’s defensive traits, his versatility is a huge asset.
Marcus Wood: A rock-solid option in the midfield engine room, Wood projects as a similar option to Sammut for Chelsea; a reliable presence in a midfield defensive capacity who can be called upon to turn in a big performance when required.
Manu Garcia: Another Spanish import, it comes as no surprise to learn his game is built in intricate football and no little skill and invention. A threat from set pieces and from long range, City will look to him to unlock Chelsea’s defence.
Paulo Fernandes: Like Garcia, signed from Spain to be a first-year scholar this season. He in particular is a dead ball wizard but also has the pace and dynamic talent in open play to stretch the field in the transition game and set up attacks for his team.
Aaron Nemane: A bullish and stocky wide forward with the power and drive to get into goalscoring areas, he has that so-called ‘nose for goal’ and scored twice in the first leg of the Semi Final to help set up City’s place here.
Javairo Dilrosun: A second Dutchman, this time imported from Ajax, he possesses plenty of tricks of the trade any good wide man will have and also has a hat-trick against England’s Under-17s to his name this season.
Denzeil Boadu: A former Arsenal schoolboy who opted to take his talents to Manchester rather than remain in London, he has done some real damage whenever he’s played this season but has suffered injury after injury and will miss out here, a significant blow to City’s changes.
Thierry Ambrose: The nation’s leading Under-18 league goalscorer last season has taken to Under-21 football well this season and earned himself a first-team call-up earlier this season. Will miss out through injury though, depriving City of arguably their best pure striker.
Brandon Barker: The man to watch. A two-footed winger who prefers his left but can use his right to good effect, he terrorises full-backs for fun and is a regular goalscorer with six goals in this Youth Cup run. His battle against England Under-19 colleague Aina will be fascinating.
Bersant Celina: A nippy and busy second striker type, Kosovan international Celina operates in the pockets of space defenders don’t like to go into and regularly pops up with a goal.
Isaac Buckley: A centre forward with a winger’s build, what he lacks in presence he more than makes up for with speed off the mark and an innate ability to finish when given the chance.
Zackarias Faour: A Swedish youth attacker who previously spent time on trial at Chelsea, his first season in England has been a slow burner but he has the size and strength to offer City an alternative to their stable of otherwise smaller, quicker forwards. Has been something of a reserve in this competition though.
The tactical battle will, predicably, be interesting and not least because both sides play in a similar manner. They set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation with versatile rotation in midfield, full-backs looking to influence play at both ends of the pitch, and dangerous forwards who can play a myriad of positions in an effort to unsettle their opposing back fours.
A key feature in big matches between these two academies in recent seasons has been the physical battle in midfield, where Chelsea were able to pit Ruben Loftus-Cheek against the considerable presence of Seko Fofana, Olivier Ntcham, or both at the same time. Each has since graduated from youth team football though, asking their respective coaches to adapt to the next generation with a different profile of player in the middle of the park.
The most notable name on the proposed Chelsea team sheet above is that of Sammut. With Boga struggling through an injury collected in the dying embers of the Shakhtar Donetsk clash, it stands to reason that the Maidstone-born defensive midfielder will be drafted into the side as he was against Tottenham a month ago. He’ll shield the defence, offering particular assistance in doubling up against Barker on the left, and works well with the more expressive Colkett in the deeper roles.
Colkett has been in spectacular form throughout 2015 and this team runs through him. Expect to see him with a lot of possession as he moves the ball quickly and deliberately across the full width of the pitch, bringing Dasilva and Aina into play before receiving it again to play into the spaces created in central areas.
Boga’s presumed absence from the first leg at the very least may see Edwards shuffle the forward pack again in terms of their distribution across the pitch. Brown’s excellent form on the right over the last month should see him continue there – and not least because Angelino and Barker carry a considerable threat for City down that side (more on that in a bit) – meaning Solanke could be asked to pick up where he left off after doing well on the left against Spurs. Abraham would lead the line in this scenario, seeking to occupy Adarabioyo and Humphries and allow Musonda time and space to weave his magic in and around the box.
If Boga can return for the second leg at the Bridge, Sammut could drop to the bench to accommodate Musonda into a deeper role, or Abraham would be the one to miss out with the team instead resembling the victorious UEFA Youth League line-up (Sammut replacing Loftus-Cheek). The defence remains predictable in all circumstances, with Clarke-Salter and Dasilva very impressive on the left side and Aina and Tomori having settled into right-back and centre-back duties over the course of the run to the Final after a few hiccups early on as they flitted between the two roles, often during the same match.
City’s primary threat is that of Barker and they’re not ashamed to exploit it at every opportunity. Their left side is far, far stronger than their right and they look to move the ball out to that side at ever y opportunity. Barker is similar to Patrick Roberts, who Chelsea faced at this stage last season, in that he is an excellent and varied dribbler with two highly capable feet, but he’s also stronger, older, taller and carries more of a goal threat. Aina will be the best full-back he’s faced in the run so far and he won’t be able to bully him physically though, so will instead seek to twist and turn in an effort to find a breakthrough.
In funnelling the play to one side more than the other, it leaves the door open at the far (right) side for the likes of Celina and Nemane especially to exploit by arriving late with defenders drawn towards stopping Barker. They don’t, however, as a team, pile forward in numbers, with Bryan and Marcus Wood (or whoever partners Bryan in midfield) tending to operate in a functional ‘double pivot’. Wood can be viewed as perhaps a more rudimentary option when compared to a Kongolo or a Boadu but his size and athleticism might be well suited in these circumstances.
Overall though, the two teams look to play with the ball on the ground in an eye-catching and exciting manner, with wide players in both attack and defence complementing a tricky number ten. City’s lack of a centre-forward means they’re a little short-handed in that department but they haven’t lacked for goals all season and shouldn’t start now.
The key game-changing moments are likely to come from individual brilliance rather than mistakes, which both teams do well to minimise even at youth levels, and with each side well stocked on the periphery, it may well be a Colkett, a Musonda or a Solanke for Chelsea, or a Manu Garcia for City, who conjure up something special. Don’t write off the substitutes either; Palmer, Scott, Buckley and Dilrosun headline those eager to come from the bench and make a name for themselves on the biggest of domestic youth stages.
Kickoff in the first leg at the City Football Academy Stadium tonight is at 7.45pm and the match is being televised live by both ITV4 and Chelsea TV. The second leg arrives next Monday 27th April at Stamford Bridge, broadcast on the same two channels and tickets for that are on sale now priced at £5 for adults and £3 for concessions. Updates throughout each match and the entire week will, as always, be available @chelseayouth.