In a year where everything we know has been turned upside down and nothing is what it seems any more, football can bring a soothing familiarity to settle you back down. For the eighth time in ten seasons, Chelsea have reached the FA Youth Cup Final, and set up a fourth clash with Manchester City since 2015 after beating their neighbours Manchester United 1-0 at St George’s Park on Friday night.
This was a tie meant to be played in the budding warmth of March springtime, in front of several thousand fans at Stamford Bridge, ready to cheer the latest crop of talented youngsters to further glory. Things have changed a lot since then, but the 2019-20 Youth Cup will be played to a finish some 150 miles away and several months after the fact – while the First Round of the 2020-21 edition gets underway at the same time elsewhere.
Despite the 1-0 scoreline, this should have been a complete and utter hammering, as Chelsea were head and shoulders above their illustrious opponents for long portions of the match. A combination of goalkeeping, woodwork and profligacy meant they were held off the scoresheet until the fourth minute of the second half, when Bryan Fiabema swept home from Man of the Match Valentino Livramento’s excellent cut-back, and while United had moments where they carried a threat of their own, any other result would’ve been tantamount to robbery.
Ed Brand was unable to call upon the services of Armando Broja and Ian Maatsen, key players earlier in the run before heading out on loan to Vitesse and Charlton respectively, but such circumstances create opportunities for others, and Fiabema wasted no time in taking advantage. He led a disruptive press from the first minute that kept the Reds penned into their own defensive third for long periods, but neither he nor Levi Colwill, Livramento, Dion Rankine or Myles Peart-Harris could make the most of their chances.
Livramento’s miss was perhaps the most egregious as he failed to head into an open goal from a few yards out and found the crossbar instead but, that moment aside, he was relentless up and down the right all night and was at the heart of everything the Blues did well, but they didn’t have it all their own way. After holding on to parity, Neil Ryan’s team were able to show what they had to offer late in the first half, and after Lucas Bergström had made a pair of smart saves to keep out long-range efforts, Anthony Elanga hit the crossbar himself with a bicycle kick after a stupendous piece of improvisation to fashion the opening.
Brand’s half time team talk reminded his young charges to stay patient and wait for their rewards, and it came in double-quick time when the second half got under way. Peart-Harris and captain Tino Anjorin did the hard work in switching the play from left to right, giving Livramento all the space he needed to play Fiabema in for the decisive strike. There could have been more too; young subs Harvey Vale and Jude Soonsup-Bell offered plenty in relief up front and the latter had a great chance to put the tie to bed late on when set up by the former, but a last-ditch block by Will Fish kept the scoreline at 1-0.
United’s late efforts were largely limited to set pieces; Teden Mengi will have wanted to do more with a free header he planted straight at Bergström, while Elanga almost wriggled his way into space late on but Colwill cleared his lines expertly, as he did all night in a strong defensive performance along side Henry Lawrence and Dynel Simeu.
And so to Monday’s decider. Man City are in the Final for the fifth time in six years themselves, but are still searching for their first trophy while Chelsea are aiming for a 10th that would see them draw level all-time with United. Their mid-decade trilogy produced the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Fikayo Tomori, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and countless others, and there will be no shortage of talent on show when they lock horns again back at St George’s Park. It promises to be spectacular.
Chelsea: Bergström, Livramento, Lawrence, Simeu, Colwill, Bate, Peart-Harris (Vale 55), Anjorin ©, Fiabema (Soonsup-Bell 72), Lewis (Ballo 90+3), Rankine
Subs not Used: Humphreys, Askew, Nunn, Elliott
Goal: Fiabema 49
Booked: Anjorin, Simeu
Manchester United: Mastny, Bejger, Devine (Hardley 77), Mengi ©, Fish, Svidersky, Shoretire (Forson 86), McCann, Helm (Wellens 72), Mejbri, Elanga
Subs not Used: Neville, Mee, Savage, Iqbal