Chelsea’s Under-18s reached the Semi Finals of the FA Youth Cup for the eighth year in succession as they battled to a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Leicester City on Wednesday evening.
In a performance which was some way short of their free-flowing best, the youngsters were forced to dig in and scrap their way to victory on an extremely wet evening at the King Power Stadium; Iké Ugbo’s second half header proving to be the decisive moment.
Having won 3-0 against the Foxes in weekend league action to secure a third successive Southern section league title, the Blues returned to the East Midlands full of confidence and with a bolstered squad full of experience on hand for the last eight tie. Mason Mount, Jacob Maddox, Trevoh Chalobah, Dujon Sterling and Ugbo all returned to continue their ever-present Youth Cup campaigns this term, whilst Jared Thompson, Marc Guehi and Josh Grant were also added to a team that only retained Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi and George McEachran from Saturday’s head-to-head.
Leicester themselves started seven of those beaten handsomely at Belvoir Drive, drafting in Layton Ndukwu, Darnell Johnson, Alex Pascanu and Lamine Sherriff from their development squad, and it was Ndukwu who started brightest of all on a wet evening at the home of the Premier League Champions, as he attempted to beat Thompson from 40 yards out with the Chelsea stopper off his line. His try wasn’t terrible by any measure, but floated safely wide of the target.
Captain Mount replied with a fiercely-struck dig from 25 yards out that screamed just past the post, with home stopper (and captain) Cameron Yates scrambling across his goal in desperation. He fared better moments later when he was in the right position to make a routine stop to deny Ugbo, who connected well with a header to meet a cross from the right.
The hosts, as most teams do against Chelsea, adopted a defensive shape with seven players regularly packed behind the ball out of possession, but they were determined in their pressing and forced several uncharacteristic mistakes from the usually sure-footed Blues players. Consequently, there was no real flow to the game and possession was exchanged with increasing regularity throughout the first half.
McEachran had struggled to get involved in the game for that very reason but, when picked out by a delightful Hudson-Odoi pass, he had a chance to show what he could do only to spin and slice a shot wide from the edge of the area. Mount’s cross was cleared to safety by Thandi and Yates plucked another simple save out of the night sky from Sterling as the pressure steadily rose, but it was still some way short of their fluent best.
A miscommunication between Guehi and Mount then looked to have handed Kairo Edwards-John a clear sight of goal as he bore down on Thompson with nobody in between, but Chalobah recovered excellently to intervene and get a block on the shot to allow everybody to breathe more easily once again. As half time approached, Chelsea pinned their hosts deeper and deeper into their own defensive third, but were still unable to give Yates very much to worry about at all.
The second half began with a stark reminder about the perils of a cup upset as Edwards-John’s bending effort took a wicked deflection off Chalobah, completely wrong-footing Thompson, but the ball bounced back out off the post. Still frustrated by the Foxes, Chelsea made a change shortly before the hour to introduce the in-form Tariq Uwakwe for McEachran and quickly fashioned their best chance of the half when Hudson-Odoi crossed from the left only for Ugbo to head wide from two yards out.
He wouldn’t let the next one go begging though as, when James stood up a delicious ball from the right, he had time and space in which to attack it and stooped to conquer, heading emphatically low into the bottom corner past Yates to make it 1-0. It was a pivotal moment in the course of the evening, allowing Chelsea to play with a little less pressure whilst forcing Leicester come out of their generally defensive shell in a bid to find an equaliser.
Ndukwu probed here and there, losing his footing at the crucial moment on the best of those tries, but they weren’t able to unduly worry Thompson. Chelsea, on the other hand, kept possession smartly, defended well, and nearly extended their lead three minutes from time when Maddox’s heavily-deflected drive was well saved by Yates.
Chelsea take their place in the last four of the competition once again, and face a two-legged Semi Final against the winner of one of the other three last eight fixtures. Those are Aston Villa vs Manchester City, Preston vs Stoke, and Newcastle vs Tottenham, and their identities will be revealed over the next fortnight. Before then, the Under-18s return to league action on Saturday morning at home to Brighton, the first of an academy double-header as the Development Squad host Manchester City immediately afterwards.
Leicester City: Yates (c), Thandi, Ughelumba, Sherriff, Pascanu, Johnson, Brown, Dewsbury-Hall, Edwards-John, Ndukwu, Leshabela (Myring 76)
Subs not Used: Heaven, Harrison, Templeton, Tee
Chelsea: Thompson, James, Guehi, T.Chalobah, Grant, Maddox, Sterling (Taylor-Crossdale 81), Mount (c), Ugbo, McEachran (Uwakwe 58), Hudson-Odoi (Gallagher 90)
Subs not Used: Nartey, Cumming
Goal: Ugbo ‘66