It wasn’t to be in the end. Chelsea’s bid for a third UEFA Youth League title fell short at the last as they were summarily beaten 3-0 by an impressive Barcelona in Monday’s Final in Nyon, Switzerland.
In truth the Blues had looked a pale shadow of their usual selves in Friday’s Semi Final against Porto, one they only came through after a dramatic penalty shootout, and the malaise carried into the showpiece occasion against the 2014 champions, who added a second Lennart Johansson Trophy to their collection, equalling Chelsea’s total.
Goals either side of half time from Venezuelan forward Alejandro Marqués did the damage before Abel Ruíz added gloss to the scoreline in the second minute of stoppage time and, although Chelsea twice hit the woodwork in the second half, anything other than a win for the Spaniards would have been a misrepresentation of the match itself.
Without the suspended Trevoh Chalobah, coach Joe Edwards went for Marc Guehi in the middle of his defence as he retained the 3-4-3 shape that has been used in the competition’s knockout rounds, whilst Jacob Maddox returned in midfield after serving a one-game ban. Conor Gallagher was the man to make way, but the Blues’ engine room looked short-staffed on paper and was soon up against it as Barcelona enjoyed plenty of early possession.
Certainly, this was something Chelsea were prepared for as Edwards noted in his pre-match preview, but it also called for mistake-free defending and sharp execution when given the chance to attack on the counter. Neither of those were especially evident in the first half, and Barcelona slowly turned the screw on their opponents, biding their time for a breakthrough to come.
They were, however, curiously impatient when it came to shooting and wasted several good positions with wild attempts from long distance that didn’t come close to worrying Jamie Cumming in goal. Yet, when the Blues did make a major error, Barcelona punished them without hesitation. Ruíz pinned Dujon Sterling on the turn and galloped clear down the left, something he was allowed to do all the way into the area without being closed down, and he was able to pick out Marqués for a simple headed finish at the far post.
The goalscorer tested Cumming from a corner before the break, whilst the excellent Alex Collado saw a good try fizz wide via the aid of a deflection, and Chelsea went in at half time having had no attempts at goal. Reece James and Juan Castillo had each produced good moments out wide that neither Callum Hudson-Odoi nor Harvey St Clair could take advantage of inside, but something would have to change if they were to turn the game around.
It did change, but not before they were 2-0 down. Marqués’ challenge on Guehi looked a foul by the officiating standards of referee Anders Ekberg, but the Swede in charge allowed the Barcelona forward to play on and beat Cumming with a simple low finish.
Ekberg’s questionable decisions affected both sides, as Sterling was very lucky to remain on the pitch after only being booked once for a pair of very late tackles, but Chelsea’s frustration was all the more palpable for his insistence on calling a foul for any slight combativeness, but for not producing a card when a more robust challenge came incoming, something that happened more often as Barcelona tried to stave off a Chelsea comeback.
Edwards had swapped his wing-backs at the break before then introducing George McEachran to finally match up man for man in midfield, and that along with the increased urgency saw Chelsea begin to fashion some goalscoring opportunities. Luke McCormick’s overhead kick bounced agonisingly wide, Hudson-Odoi’s free kick bounced back off the foot of the post, and McCormick again got on the end of some good play by McEachran only to send his shot spinning wide.
Charlie Brown replaced the disappointing Daishawn Redan and had a half-hearted appeal for a penalty turned down before later clipping the top of the crossbar with a header from Hudson-Odoi’s cross, and St Clair dragged wide from a good position in between those incidents. Throughout all of this, Inaki Pena didn’t have a save to make, and Ruíz’ tireless and selfless centre-forward’s performance at the other end was handsomely rewarded at the death when he made it 3-0 to kill Chelsea off.
The Blues will now have to gather themselves before this weekend’s FA Youth Cup Final against Arsenal, with the first leg set for Friday at Stamford Bridge before Monday’s return leg at the Emirates Stadium. They’ll also now need to beat Manchester United in the Under-18 Premier League National Final – date and venue to be decided – if they’re to return to the UEFA Youth League next season.
Chelsea: Cumming, James, Sterling, Guehi (McEachran 58), Grant ©, Maddox (Lamptey 73), St Clair, McCormick, Redan (Brown 67), Hudson-Odoi, Castillo
Subs not Used: Gallagher, Bulka, Colley, Uwakwe
Booked: Sterling, James
Barcelona: Inaki Pena, Mate, Mingueza ©, Chumi, Miranda, Orellana (Dani Morer 74), Riqui Puig (Víla 90), Collado, Abel Ruíz, Carles Pérez, Marqués (Jaime 80)
Subs not Used: Comas, Carevic, Tugarinov, Mortimer
Goals: Marqués ’33, ’52, Ruíz ‘90+2
Booked: Mingueza, Orellana, Pena, Miranda, Mate