To say Chelsea have something of an affinity with the UEFA Youth League would be something of an understatement. They’ve won a remarkable 40 of the 47 matches they’ve played in the competition, accumulating a +100 goal difference along the way, and have reached the final in each of the last four occasions they’ve played in it.
However, they only have two Lennart Johansson Trophies in the silverware cabinet back at Cobham, after losing the decider in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and 2019. Six months ago, having avenged the former of those by vanquishing Barcelona, the Blues once again came up short as they were beaten by an FC Porto team that little bit older, stronger, savvier and more accomplished overall.
That it didn’t feel quite as disappointing as it was twelve months earlier was testament to the fact that those boys almost willed themselves back to Nyon for a showpiece occasion they probably had no business being in. It took a late winner to see off Montpellier in the Round of Sixteen, before penalty shootout wins against both Dinamo Zagreb and then Barcelona. So fine were the margins along the way that it always felt like an uphill struggle and, while each player left everything on the pitch, it wasn’t quite enough.
And so we go again with the 2019-20 edition. After spending last season in the Domestic Champions path because the first-team failed to qualify for the Champions League, the Under-19s are back in the ‘main’ part of the draw and, like their senior counterparts, will play Valencia, Lille and Ajax in the weeks to come. They have previous with two of those, recording a pair of narrow victories twenty days apart in 2016 en route to retaining the trophy, while Lille present another intriguing French opponent after going up against Monaco, Montpellier and Paris Saint-German in years gone by.
The Ajax matches certainly stand out as one of the highlights of the group stage draw; two of Europe’s finest academies will renew acquaintances, with some of the brightest and best teenage prospects in the world on display. The last time they met, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham lined up against Mathijs De Ligt and Donny van de Beek, and there will be no shortage of names to watch this time around either.
The Blues are able to return a strong core of squad options from last year’s campaign, but have said goodbye to Conor Gallagher and Juan Castillo, who have joined the ranks of the Loan Army, Daishawn Redan and Joseph Colley, who have moved on to pastures new, and to Charlie Brown, one of the 1999-born players who are now too old to participate.
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) September 13, 2019
Tariq Lamptey, George McEachran and Marc Guehi return as overage-eligible 2000-borns, and the likes of Billy Gilmour, Ian Maatsen and Tino Anjorin – all within increasing proximity of Frank Lampard’s plans – will ensure that Andy Myers has plenty of options to call upon in his maiden crack at the tournament.
How might Chelsea line up in this season's UEFA Youth League? An early guess… pic.twitter.com/HZ963kMb5M
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) August 29, 2019
The projected ‘strongest’ eleven looks much like the currently unbeaten Development Squad team, only without Brown leading the line. Armando Broja’s six goals in five matches for Ed Brand’s Under-18s so far this term should give him the inside track to getting the nod in the number nine shirt, but George Nunn is an option too, and was a part of the match day squad in the run to Switzerland earlier this year.
Who plays wide in attack will also be something to watch; Marcel Lewis and Thierno Ballo have been given early-season opportunities to play at a higher level, but Myers has the option of pushing either or both of Ian Maatsen and Tariq Lamptey into more advanced positions, and calling upon the services of a Henry Lawrence or a Marcel Lavinier in deeper areas. Lawrence has started at left-back in each of the last two Under-23 matches in Maatsen’s absence, while Lavinier has been a go-to substitute on the right-hand side of the pitch in a role that naturally frees Lamptey up even more.
In short, the coach and the team have options. Valencia come to Cobham on Tuesday without a win in the Youth League since December 2015, and with revenge in mind after controversy reigned the last time they were in town. Then, you may recall, Chelsea needed penalties to advance to the Quarter Finals, and they needed the intervention of a stanchion at the foot of the post to help them on their way. Despite Alberto Gil’s penalty crossing the line before it hit the obtrusive part of the goal frame, the officials ruled it out under the impression it had struck the post, and Valencia lost the subsequent appeal.
Chelsea will want to get off to a winning start and lean heavily on their home form; only Schalke and Roma have ever come to Cobham and taken all three points, and the importance of winning the group to ensure a Round of Sixteen tie against a playoff-stage winner only serves to make the path back to Nyon that little bit easier.
It won’t be plain sailing, however; we’ve seen the drama that can and will accompany the ride, and it won’t be in short supply this time around either. As the depth and quality of young talent reaches new heights around the continent, winning the UEFA Youth League is as hard as ever, but you can be sure that Chelsea intend to be among the leading contenders.