On Monday afternoon Chelsea will take to the field at Nyon’s Stade du Colovray bidding to be the first team of any age level to retain the most prestigious UEFA competition at their respective age group.
No senior club side has retained the Champions League since the revamp from the European Cup in 1993 and, although it remains in its infancy, the same can be said of the Under-19 UEFA Youth League. The Blues are the title holders and take on Paris Saint-Germain bidding to hold onto their place as Europe’s top academy team.
It’s been an interesting eight-month journey for Adi Viveash’s youngsters as they transitioned from a group he labelled ‘the best side of their age’ he’d ever seen and into a much younger, lesser-experienced group of players. It’s testament to everyone at the academy base in Cobham that Chelsea have been able to overcome the graduation of Andreas Christensen, Izzy Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Charly Musonda, Dominic Solanke and Jeremie Boga to senior football and still return to the showpiece occasion.
They’ve done it in their own style too. Last year’s group was never truly tested, sauntering through the group stage with an average of four goals per game and, despite a slight hiccup in defeat away to Schalke, powered their way through the knockout rounds with, you sensed at the time, plenty to spare. The 2015-16 vintage, though actually unbeaten themselves, haven’t quite had things their own way but have produced resolute, winning football.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Dynamo Kyiv were dealt with comfortably in the group stages as they should have been, whilst home and away draws with FC Porto were played out safe in the knowledge that Chelsea could have won them if they absolutely had to; the return fixture at Cobham coming with their place atop the group already confirmed.
The Second Round victory over Valencia caught international headlines over a controversial penalty decision in a shootout after a 1-1 draw but the young Blues did everything required of them and looked at ease during the drama of spot kicks. They had to dig in for spells in the last eight against Ajax but kept the Dutch at arm’s length, and Friday’s Semi Final against Anderlecht was rather simpler by comparison as the Belgians rarely showed the capacity to worry their illustrious opponents in the same way Chelsea’s previous foes had been able to.
It’s been a fairly similar tale for PSG, who will argue that having to play Real Madrid three times in nine matches represents a tougher path to the final. They swapped home wins in a group stage where Malmo and Shakhtar Donetsk, last year’s runners-up, rather made up the numbers, but despite an opening-day slip-up at home to Malmo the French club finished top and had to negotiate a tricky-looking second-round tie against Domestic Champions path standouts Middlesbrough.
Despite the relative differences in stature and notoriety, Boro gave them one hell of a game and on another afternoon would have come away with a win. It was arguably as much of a contest as they’d been in up to that point and a Quarter Final win at home to Roma looked somewhat easier. A third date with Real Madrid on Friday in Nyon swung back and forth with the Spanish in control for long spells, but two goals in the final seven minutes edged Francois Rodrigues’ boys home.
The PSG coach set his team up in a classic 4-3-3 shape with one holding midfielder joined by two more advanced central ones, but often in their Semi Final it became a 4-1-4-1 shape with Madrid’s two excellent full-backs pushing the wide players back into less dangerous areas. They’re as physically capable a side as Chelsea will have come across in their European exploits and, on the face of it at least, are able to intertwine raw athleticism and technical proficiency in the same manner as Viveash’s lot.
That, however, is largely because of two or three highly-rated prospects, with many others leaving considerable question marks about their comfort in possession. Yakou Meite is a dynamic and versatile youngster who has a potent left foot and drives at the heart of the defence with regularity, whilst midfielder Christopher Nkunku links defence to attack seamlessly and marshals everything from his position in the centre circle.
Odsonne Eduoard stole the show for France at last summer’s European Under-17 Championships but has blown hot and cold for his club, playing out an anonymous hour in his last match before being replaced. The forward line will be led by Jean-Kevin Augustin, a player with first-team experience and one who featured against Chelsea’s own senior squad during last summer’s tour of the United States. He has five goals in seven appearances including one against Real Madrid, but he too was a little below-par for his apparently stature and expectations.
Madrid will have considered themselves unlucky not to be lining up against Chelsea themselves. They were the better side on the balance of play, creating the better chances but not taking them. Borja Mayoral was particularly wasteful and they were also denied a clear penalty shout in the second half before eventually running out of steam and shipping two goals to fresher legs late on.
They are in many ways a similar side to Chelsea, which will perhaps fill the Blues’ coaching staff with confidence. They demand possession, build their play through midfield and then look to take advantage in the final third. They were made to pay with a lack of final touch but the Blues have looked sharp in that department of late and will fancy their chances.
It would be easy and maybe therefore unfair to suggest that PSG’s place in the final owes a lot to their sheer size, but they do make it a clear part of their game. They will move the ball around the back four before eventually looking to hit it long to Augustin up front or Meite/Edouard in wide areas, with holding midfielder Yohann Demoncy either unwilling or unable to take possession in tight areas facing his own goal.
He will, instead, sit between centre-backs Doucoure and Eboa Eboa and do their long passing for them. It’s an area Chelsea will target with the dynamic Kasey Palmer likely licking his lips at operating in a pocket of space where the French leave much to be desired. Antoine Bernede, a first-half substitute on Friday, offers more than Demoncy but likes to play box-to-box and so doesn’t quite solve the problem.
Viveash has a fully-available 22-man squad for the occasion, having successfully avoided bookings to Palmer and Fikayo Tomori against Anderlecht, and although he hinted that changes may be required for a second game in four days, Friday’s starting eleven was almost as strong as it gets. The one change may be to bring Jay Dasilva back in after a foot injury acquired against Ajax, but it’s not going to be an easy choice to leave someone out to accommodate him.
Dujon Sterling and Jacob Maddox figure to be the duo most likely at risk of dropping out. Both are in scintillating form on the right side of the pitch and will be mainstays of Joe Edwards’ FA Youth Cup Final team against Manchester City over the next fornight, but with everyone else in the team seemingly nailed on, it will come down to whether the coaching staff prefer Sterling’s size and power against a big PSG team, or Maddox’s nimble craft and guile to wriggle away from less agile opponents.
The choice of formation will also be something to watch. Whilst Edwards’ Under-18s have often adopted a 3-4-2-1 look, Viveash has only used it once in the UEFA Youth League this season, at home to Porto in a dead rubber when he wanted to take a look at it should he need to call upon it later in the competition. With PSG’s full-backs both looking decidedly questionable against Real Madrid and neither winger especially keen to track back against highly-capable full-backs, it could be the time to spring a tactical surprise.
The versatility of the projected team would also allow for the shape to seamlessly change back and forth from a 4-2-3-1 almost naturally, with Ola Aina the key to making that happen. He would slot in as a third centre-back to allow Sterling to go forward, but the pair are so alike that they can flip their roles as demand requires and pose an additional threat.
Mukhtar Ali has been the sole ever-present in the team but leading scorer Abraham and Kyle Scott only missed the Porto match for a rest and Jake Clarke-Salter twice sat out through injury. They provide the spine of the team, a reliable group to fall back on in times of need and are players upon which much responsibility can be placed. Mayoral gave PSG plenty to think about whilst not approaching his best and they will be unlikely to have come up against a player with Abraham’s complete attributes and the prolific forward needs just one goal to take a share of the Golden Boot title and emulate Solanke from last season.
It will, as Finals tend to be, likely turn out to be a cagey and tight affair with the decisive moments coming from mistakes or moments of pure quality. The two sides each have their share of match winners and have shown a strong defensive foundation to get this far, but it’s clear that Chelsea have reason to think they can hold onto the trophy and become record-breaking double UEFA Youth League winners.
They’re no stranger to big games, having reached five consecutive FA Youth Cup Finals as well as the two UEFA Under-19 ones and a NextGen Series finale before that, and their mentality on these big days has become a story in itself. They’re not merely satisfied with being there and enjoying the occasion, they’re there to win it. Against Anderlecht and against Blackburn before that in their domestic schedule they displayed a ruthless professionalism to run out comfortable winners, leaving nothing to chance and playing on their terms. This is a business trip to Switzerland and they expect to return home with more silverware to add to the collection.
The match kicks off at 4pm UK time, 5pm CET, on Monday 18th April at the Stade du Colovray in Nyon. BT Sport will cover the match live in the UK with worldwide coverage provided by other carriers, and there will of course be full coverage on Twitter @chelseayouth.