Chelsea will return to Nyon for the UEFA Youth League Finals weekend once again after overcoming Real Madrid in a pulsating Quarter Final on Wednesday afternoon.
The Blues fell behind early to a sensational free kick from Óscar Hernández, but showed exceptional resolve to respond with a clinical first half in front of goal, as Daishawn Redan laid on an equaliser for Luke McCormick before adding two himself to establish a 3-1 lead. Substitute Ismael Álvarez reduced the arrears on the hour mark before Jacob Maddox was harshly sent off, leaving the ten men with a real battle on their hands, but they saw it over the line as Harvey St Clair gleefully capitalised on a stoppage-time mistake to seal a 4-2 victory.
For what looked to be the team’s toughest-ever test in the competition, with perhaps the exception of the 2015-16 Final against Paris Saint-Germain, they knew they would have to do without the services of talismanic forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, who joined Antonio Conte’s first-team squad in Barcelona. Joe Edwards could call upon just about everyone else though, and opted for a 3-4-3 formation, but with Reece James at wing-back and Dujon Sterling at centre-back.
That decision would ultimately prove to be an inspired one, but not before Chelsea fell behind after just six minutes. Óscar’s unstoppable 30-yard free kick crashed in via the crossbar, leaving Jamie Cumming helpless, and the Blues were behind in a UEFA Youth League knockout tie for just the third time ever.
Unpeturbed, they played their football, let Real Madrid waste a couple of decent opportunities by shooting from distance, and pounced when chances came their way. A poor pass was intercepted by Redan on the edge of the hosts’ penalty area, and the Dutchman squared for McCormick to coolly slot home past Mohamet Ramos for the equaliser.
Five minutes later, they had the lead, but it came in highly controversial fashion. Reece James’ exceptional supply line from the right was fully evident yet again, but his delivery was clearly turned into the back of the net with Redan’s right forearm, much to the chagrin of those clad in all white. The officials heard none of their protests, though, and Chelsea were 2-1 ahead.
The two teams then settled back down and exchanged a series of half-chances without really threatening, and Victor Chust was fortunate not to be sent off for a late tackle on Trevoh Chalobah shortly after being booked for a foul on Redan, but neither party was especially keen on risking too much for fear of being left exposed at the back.
Then, in first-half stoppage time, James found Redan again from the right, and this time the finish was all legal as he flicked home to make it 3-1, and continue a fine personal week. His three goals and one assist as captain of the Netherlands’ Under-17 team had helped to book their place at this summer’s European Championship, and how he was back in a blue shirt and making just as significant an impact.
Guti, the legendary Spanish midfielder turned Real Under-19 coach, was visibly frustrated at his team’s performance, and their reaction at the start of the second half told a story. Piling the pressure on with more urgency, they forced Edwards into swapping Sterling and James back into their more recognised positions, and came forward in greater numbers. Alberto and César missed the target from good positions, but at the other end Sterling should have ended the game as a content when he met St Clair’s cross from the left, only to head over an open goal from six yards out.
That was important, as the game swung back towards Madrid considerably in the next ten minutes. Álvarez reduced the deficit to one with a cute header after Baeza had rattled the crossbar, and Maddox was then shown a straight red card for going slightly over the top in chasing a loose ball, a decision that looked particularly unfortunate. The hosts will claim that Redan’s first goal had unfairly swung the game in Chelsea’s favour, however, and it was now very much all to play for.
The increasingly wet conditions merely added to the tense atmosphere, as Chelsea also lost James and Ethan Ampadu to injury, whilst defending manfully with the backs to the wall. Juan Castillo pulled out an incredible block to deny Baeza, Óscar dropped one just over the bar, and Cumming threw out a hand to frustrate Moha with a tremendous reaction save from point-blank range.
Halfway through five minutes of added time, Álvarez could have tied things up and sent the game to penalties, but seemed surprised to be left wide open in front of goal and could only head tamely at Cumming. Chelsea, powered forward by the inspirational Josh Grant and the tireless McCormick, found time and space on the break instead, with substitute George McEachran both patient and accurate in possession, and they did make it count.
St Clair was guilty of spurning a golden chance when clear on goal in the 93rd minute but, when given another chance, he took it. Finding the energy for one last chase, he forced Ramos into a mistake and robbed him of the ball on the edge of his own box, before strolling towards goal and lashing the ball into the back of the net to book their ticket to Nyon.
They’ll now face FC Porto at the Stade du Colovray on Friday 20th April, with Manchester City and Barcelona squaring off in the other Semi Final, for the right to play for the Lennart Johansson Trophy on Monday 23rd April. The Blues have a perfect record at the Swiss stadium, having won the 2014-15 and 2015-16 editions of the tournament, and you wouldn’t bet against them doing it again.
Real Madrid: Ramos, López, García, Álex Martín, Chust, Martín © (Moha 63), Alberto, Galván (Álvarez 45), Baeza, Óscar, César
Subs not Used: Altube Suarez, Blanco, Zekri, Gutiérrez, Hernández
Goals: Óscar ‘6, Álvarez ‘59
Chelsea: Cumming, James (Taylor-Crossdale 85), Sterling, Ampadu (McEachran 80), Grant ©, Chalobah, McCormick, Maddox, Redan (Gallagher 73), St Clair, Castillo
Subs not Used: Bułka, Colley, C.Dasilva, Guehi
Goals: McCormick ’14, Redan ’19, ‘45+2, St Clair ‘90+5
Booked: Redan, Chalobah, McCormick