The Chelsea International Tournament closed as it opened, with Chelsea facing River Plate on the main Academy pitch. Unfortunately, the Blues couldn’t continue the symmetry of their 2-1 win on Saturday, going down 2-0 to a young Argentinian side who left smiles on everyone’s faces.
Monday began with the tournament Semi Finals, and Dermott Drummy’s boys facing FC Togliatti of Russia. He made one change to the line-up which had won the first two group games, bringing in Anton Rodgers – fresh off the back of a hat-trick against Al-Nejmeh – for the disappointing Kaby. The Russians looked big, strong, and up for the match.
Indeed, it showed in the very early stages. Jamal Blackman was forced into a quite superb save in the first minute, but from the following corner, Dmitriy Golubev was left unmarked at the far post to crash a diving header into the top corner and put Chelsea behind for the first time in the competition. They looked keener, fresher, and stronger than a Chelsea side that looked to still be in their beds.
Marko Mitrovic, with three goals to his name already, finally had a sight of goal, forcing a decent save with a shot across his body just after ten minutes had passed. It was a rare moment of attacking prowess from Chelsea, who were really struggling to get things going in midfield. At the other end, Togliatti went close to doubling their advantage – but for Vincenzo Camilleri’s desperation goalline clearance (and injury after colliding with the post) they would have been further ahead.
Mitrovic teased the defence with a cross-shot which nobody gambled on, then drew a neat save with a low volley, efforts sandwiching a Rohan Ince shot cleared off the line as the Blues finished the half strongly. Two changes followed at the break, Nathaniel Chalobah and Kaby replacing Rodgers and James Ashton, with a change in shape. With the Russians already resorting to time-wasting and leaving one up front, Drummy left moved Rohan Ince into midfield alongside Josh MacEachran, and a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kaby joining Billy Knott and Milan Lalkovic behind Mitrovic.
Knott’s enthusiasm and drive was coming out more and more, the sheer desperation to win emanating from him at every opportunity. He led with his football too, chasing, harrassing, winning possession, and would have had a goal ten minutes into the second period but for an unfortunate block by Mitrovic. Kaby blazed the rebound over the crossbar.
Five minutes later, and Chelsea were gifted a way back into things. Billy Clifford took a shot at goal from outside the box which was saved but not held. As Togliatti tried to get the ball to safety, one of their defenders inexplicably used his hand, and a clear penalty was awarded. Knott refused to let anyone else take on such an important spot-kick (despite Mitrovic having already scored one on Saturday) but duly sent the keeper the wrong way before running off to celebrate in front of the Bayern Munich team, who had been cheering Chelsea on from the stands.
With one goal, they sensed blood, and a defensive Togliatti team looked clueless as to how to react in the face of such determination and effort. Camilleri sent a header a foot over with ten minutes to go before the hosts brought the house down by taking the lead. A series of passes around the box led to Knott in possession just inside the right side, looking for a way through. He instead went down the line and cut it back to MacEachran, who turned and shot, strongly enough to get through the desparing defender on the line. He was mobbed, led by the delighted Knott.
Togliatti’s heads gone, Chelsea added a third in the dying seconds, Kaby supplying Mitrovic with a chance to snap up his fourth of the tournament. He duly obliged, crashing home with his left foot and heading off in his already familiar wide-armed celebration. Seconds later the final whistle went, sending Chelsea through to the Final off the back of a true mental effort in a game where their technical abilities weren’t as good, but evidently not as important.
Around Cobham, River Plate had secured a re-match against the hosts, beating Disney’s All-Stars 2-0 on Pitch Two. A short break followed before the matches to decide places 5-8 took place, with Ajax taking 5th through beating Suwon Blue Wings 4-1, a goal from Cerilio Cijntje going down as arguably the best of the tournament. Bayern Munich took 7th as they beat Al-Nejmeh 8-1, but the Lebanese finding the scoresheet will have made their tournament.
Next up was the clash of the losing Semi Finalists to decide third place. Togliatti took it 2-1, having gone ahead only to be pegged back midway through the second half before winning at the death with a free kick from some distance. With the appropriate presentations complete, all attentions turned to the Final.
Drummy was to keep faith with the team that showed such courage to come back in the Semi Final, meaning a start for Chalobah in central defence and a 4-2-3-1 formation from the off. Having been surprised by a lightning quick start in their first meeting on Saturday, River showed their intent to fight fire with fire, forcing a save from Blackman within ten seconds. Less than two minutes later the small winger Daniel Villalva-Barrios had hit the post, as River already looked a much better team than had started off a few days ago.
Juan Montero, a classy number ten, then sent a free kick over before Chelsea themselves went close. Lalkovic cut back a cross which was awkward for Mitrovic, but he showed agility and strength to send a flying header at goal, thumping back off the crossbar. With the woodwork count level at one apiece, the action began to flow from end to end, Diego Martinez coming within inches of a clear chance, closed down superbly by Billy Clifford at the last possible opportunity. Villalva-Barrios, his team’s top goalscorer and evident talisman, then sent a shot over the temporary seating bank behind the goal and followed it up with a 25 yard free kick which whizzed wide.
After Clifford had shown incredible athleticism and tackling prowess for the second time in minutes, the game became a little niggly and sour, with events surrounding Kaby. Unhappy at a tackle and resulting decision, he launched in a little recklessly on Leandro Pirez, earning himself a yellow card. At the next opportunity, Pirez got his revenge, clattering into the Portuguese playmaker, and was also cautioned. With the need for cooler heads to prevail, half-time was a welcome break.
Yet, ironically, it was too cool a Chelsea head that started their downfall three minutes after the restart. A long ball caught in the wind and landed outside the penalty area, with Camilleri running towards his own goal and Blackman approaching. The Italian’s header was tame, allowing Villalva-Barrios to steal in and poke the ball past the giant stopper for the lead, and a share of the Golden Boot with Mitrovic – scoring four apiece.
The goal immediately drew words of encouragement from Knott, who sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Semi Final. This time, though, it was River who were the subject of the attentions of the spectators, being cheered on by Togliatti and Al-Nejmeh, both teams beaten by Chelsea. With Clifford advancing further down the right, his impressive cross just ran past Mitrovic but was met by Kaby, who saw his shot well saved by Zelaya.
Luis Vila came on for River, and immediately had a half-chance well smothered by Blackman. Drummy showed faith with the eleven on the pitch, opting not to make any changes but instead allow Deen-Conteh and Clifford to become wingers themselves, leaving just Chalobah and Camilleri back as Ince also pressed on. It suited River, who looked to play on the break. It was Ince who went close from a corner, sending a shot just over the bar, before making a brave last-ditch block at the other end. More River subs followed to ensure fresher legs in the fight for the trophy as time was running out, and Chelsea’s coach also sought help close to the death, bringing Rodgers and Kamara into the game and going for broke.
In the win or bust stakes, it was ultimately bust. In stoppage time Vila found himself one on one with Clifford. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t hold the River number 9 off, and with one crashing finish into the roof of the net, River had secured their tournament win. The final whistle was greeted with delirious celebration, with the Argentinian youngsters keen to celebrate with anyone and everyone they could get their hands on, including the watching Didier Drogba and Franco Di Santo – the latter being presented with his own River Plate shirt.
It was then left for the awards ceremony to take place. Mitrovic and Villalva-Barrios shared the golden boot with four strikes apiece, whilst Josh MacEachran was voted as the Player of the Tournament.
Chelsea legend Ray Wilkins handed the Chelsea International Tournament Trophy to River Plate captain Esteban Lopez to begin the celebrations, at the end of a wonderfully entertaining long weekend of youth football summed up by the sheer joy of the River players in victory. The tournament, like the new Academy Building and Community Pavilion and everyone who works within it, was a real credit to Chelsea Football Club.
Congratulations to River Plate, and all eight teams who participated in the weekend.