Chelsea put themselves in a useful position in the defence of their FA Youth Cup crown as they edged ahead in their two-legged tie against Blackburn Rovers by emerging with a 1-0 win from the first meeting of the sides at Ewood Park.
Fikayo Tomori’s first-half header was enough to take a win back to Stamford Bridge for Joe Edwards’ youngsters, and they were good value for their win too, defending stoically when necessary and taking control of the game for long spells. Blackburn will rue two second-half moments where they might have been able to give themselves a stronger foothold in the tie but they very much remain in contention for the right to face either Manchester City or Arsenal in the Final.
An injury to Jay Dasilva forced Edwards into at least one change from the team that successfully saw off Reading at Stamford Bridge in Round Five, with Josh Grant coming into the side in his place and Trevoh Chalobah slotting in at left-back in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Dujon Sterling, an influential half-time substitute against the Royals, was given the nod from the off this time on the right wing in the absence of Charlie Wakefield.
Many teams opt to take an aggressive and up-tempo approach against Chelsea in the early stages, seeking to force a mistake upon which they can capitalise, perhaps seize an advantage and then attempt to hold onto it. Having come up against such a scenario fairly often, however, the Blues were able to see off Blackburn’s best efforts in the first quarter of an hour and, whilst it wasn’t always pretty, they held their own and ensured Nathan Baxter had a light workload in goal.
The pressing high up the pitch and constant harassing in all departments subsided as Rovers found it hard to match their good intentions with sufficient fitness and that allowed the visitors to begin establishing control over proceedings. Isaac Christie-Davies had a shot blocked as they moved through the gears and captain Jake Clarke-Salter thumped a close-range header over as he made a good connection with Mukhtar Ali’s corner.
It was another set piece that resulted in the game’s opening goal and it came from Clarke-Salter’s centre-back partner Tomori. Christie-Davies dropped a free kick from wide on the left into a dangerous area between defence and goalkeeper, allowing Tomori to steal ahead of his man and beat the advancing Andrew Fisher to the ball and find the back of the net for his fourth goal of the season.
Sterling had repeatedly caught the eye in the opening forty-five minutes, giving Josh Askew a particularly tough time down the Chelsea right but also coming inside to good effect. He linked up well with the in-form Kyle Scott on more than one occasion but they each ran out of room when well-placed to add to the scoreline, whilst Sterling himself might have done better with a cross-shot late in the half that Fisher pounced on before Tammy Abraham could affect the situation.
It remained tight when second half action resumed with Abraham unable to make the most of two half-chances inside the Blackburn penalty area, whilst Billy Barr’s home side were wasteful from corners on either side of the pitch. The hour mark arrived and brought with it a Chelsea free kick won by Ali and taken by Abraham, an excellent effort that left Fisher rooted to the spot as it came back off the inside of the post.
Scott and Abraham then each made way for fresher legs at the end of an intense week that included a long old slog against Ajax in the UEFA Youth League, and it was those minutes in the legs of several others that allowed Blackburn to keep themselves in with a shout as the game wore on. They weren’t able to ask Baxter to do much more than come out to sweep up an interesting through ball by Willem Tomlinson but they did ensure that Chelsea weren’t having everything their own way.
Then, with fifteen minutes remaining, Baxter very much did have work to do. Chalobah lost possession and allowed Blackburn to launch a counter-attack with Lewis Mansell able to gallop clear on goal. His attempt was cleared off the line by Tomori before substitute Tre Pemberton watched his follow-up expertly beaten away by the recovering Chelsea goalkeeper.
That was the signal for everything to open up again in a raucous ending to a generally subdued game overall and Iké Ugbo, on for Abraham, should have done better than hit the ball straight at Fisher at the end of a sharp move. A persistent aerial bombardment presented decent opportunities for Mansell and Matthew Platt but, by and large, Clarke-Salter and Tomori repelled everything thrown in their direction to hold onto their 1-0 lead until full time.
It leaves the tie finely poised ahead of the return leg at Stamford Bridge in three weeks time. Tickets are on sale for that match right now via the official club website and at the ticket office but must be purchased before the day of the game. The Under-18s, meanwhile, return to league action on Saturday with the visit of West Ham United as they continue to compete for honours on multiple fronts.
Blackburn Rovers: Fisher, Nyambe, Askew, Hardcastle, Platt, Wharton (c) (Magloire 54), Rankin-Costello, Tomlinson, Mansell, Grayson (Pemberton 67), Howarth
Subs not Used: Travis, Ascroft, Steer
Chelsea: Baxter, Grant, Tomori, Clarke-Salter (c), Chalobah, Sammut, Sterling, Ali, Abraham (Ugbo 71), Scott (Maddox 61), Christie-Davies (Mount 83)
Subs not Used: Cumming, Nartey
Goal: Tomori ‘26