Chelsea secured their place in the Semi Finals of the UEFA Youth League on Wednesday afternoon as they overcame Atlético Madrid 2-0 in a scrappy and tense affair at their Cobham training base.
In a game of few chances, an own goal from Atlético defender Fran Manzanara gave the Blues a slender advantage they held onto until the latter stages, when Dominic Solanke popped up with his 29th goal of another stellar campaign to set up a date with either Roma or Manchester City in the last four.
Blues coach Adi Viveash made just one change from the team that beat Zenit St Petersburg in the previous round, bringing the fit-again Jeremie Boga into the starting eleven at the expense of Alex Kiwomya. It meant the familiar back five of Brad Collins, Ola Aina, Fikayo Tomori, Jake-Clarke Salter (himself fit again after a knock picked up last week) and Jay Dasilva were once again in action, with Andreas Christensen getting another run out in midfield.
The Dane – who plays in that role for his country’s Under-21 side – partnered Charlie Colkett in the middle of the park, with Boga adopting his favoured number ten role ahead of them. Captain Izzy Brown manned the left flank, Tammy Abraham the right, and the competition’s leading scorer Dominic Solanke assumed centre forward duties.
Atlético qualified for the last eight by virtue of defeating Arsenal in the first knockout round, having previously matched Chelsea’s group stage record of five wins and a defeat, besting Olympiacos, Juventus and Malmö in Group A. They adopted a 4-1-4-1 shape and made three changes amongst a re-jigged defensive line aimed at suppressing a potent home attacking unit.
They pressed with positive effect early on and might have done better from an early set piece situation but were otherwise happy to concede possession to Chelsea in their own half, breaking up play as their hosts tried to come forward. In response, a typically talkative Viveash encouraged his players to move the ball with precision and at speed, particularly seeking a searching ball in behind either full-back for Brown and Abraham to exploit.
Aina’s cross towards Abraham looked to have created the game’s first real opening with twenty minutes on the clock but close attentions from an Atléti defender ensured the prolific teenager was unable to get a clean shot away, and the chance rather summed up an uneventful opening to proceedings.
Boga then drilled a free kick both high and wide before a rampaging run down the left by Brown promised much only for his cross to elude the run of Solanke in the box. Atlético were even less successful with their rare attacking forays though, with captain Andrés Mohedano volleying well over Collins’ crossbar their sole sight of goal in the opening forty-five minutes.
Chelsea grabbed the advantage they had just about deserved with 37 minutes on the clock. Colkett’s delectable ball in behind found the well-timed run of Brown, who flicked it beyond goalkeeper Carlos Marín towards goal. Christensen would have made sure on the line anyway but defender Manzanara will go down with the dubious honour of the own goal as his attempts to clear it to safety resulted in him turning it over the line himself.
A huge Aina throw late in the half might have given Abraham a chance to make it two but, much like his earlier sight of goal, it was hacked away to safety by hook or by crook and the Madrid side kept their deficit to just one at the break.
The opening quarter of an hour following the restart was just as tight and tactical as the first, with Atlético picking up bookings for Otia and substitute Rodríguez as they did their best to interrupt Chelsea’s stride. Christensen twice found himself in good advanced areas down the right hand side but his first cross flashed across the face of goal without getting a touch, and his second took too long with Brown and Boga wide open awaiting a delivery that was blocked by Manzanara.
A misplaced pass by Diedhiou then looked to have given Brown a clear shot at goal but the skipper was wasteful from the edge of the box before the Atlético man had a chance to make amends for his error when presented with his side’s best opportunity of the afternoon, but he too was found lacking and Collins pushed his tame effort aside with relative ease.
Atlético’s Serbian substitute Špoljarić added presence and guile to his team’s attack with twenty minutes left and should have done better when presented with the ball six yards out, but it fell to his weaker left foot and he duly let Chelsea off with a weak effort wide of Collins’ left-hand post. Still, Los Colchoneros began to turn the screw with their competition place at stake and loaded the penalty area with red and white shirts at every dead ball opportunity.
It meant more space for Chelsea to exploit on the break and, led by Brown and substitute Kasey Palmer they tried to do just that with seven minutes left but the former put too much on his ball for Solanke and, once again, it ran harmlessly out of play. Wih two minutes remaining though, they got it right. Palmer’s hold-up play on the left drew defenders out of the middle and left Christensen wide open on the edge of the area. He fed Solanke, who took two touches to get the ball out of his feet before sending an arrow of a shot under Marín to score his ninth goal in the competition and his 29th of the season.
It means a trip to Nyon in Switzerland for the young Blues, where the competition will come to a head close to UEFA’s headquarters in mid-April. The other Semi Final will feature the winners of the Benfica vs Shakhtar Donetsk and Anderlecht vs FC Porto ties with a new winner assured following the exit of defending champions Barcelona.
Chelsea: Collins, Aina, Tomori, Clarke-Salter, Dasilva, Colkett, Abraham, Christensen, Solanke, Boga (Palmer 77), Brown (c)
Subs not Used: Musonda, Thompson, Sammut, Ugbo, Suljic, Kiwomya
Goals: Manzanara og ‘37, Solanke ’89
Booked: Dasilva, Aina
Atlético Madrid: Marín, Mendiondo (Rodríguez 45), Sakho (Altamirano 84), Lucas, Manzanara, Otia, Diedhiou, Mohedano (c) (Špoljarić 69), Nuñez, Ezatolahi, Morente
Subs not Used: Guille Pérez, Montoro, Fede Prieto, Gama
Booked: Otia, Rodríguez